Local duo buys back Rockville-based funeral homes

Edward D. Sagel this summer bought back the eponymous funeral home he founded 20 years ago, returning the Rockville company to its roots as one of a shrinking number of independently owned funeral businesses.

Sagel, who founded Edward Sagel Funeral Direction in 1994 at age 29, sold it two years later to SCI, the country’s largest funeral services company. He continued to manage the funeral home for the new owners, even as the company ran into operational issues that led Maryland officials to temporarily suspend his license.

Sagel said he regretted his decision to sell. Within a few years, he had begun asking SCI if he could buy it back.

The answer was always “No.” Until earlier this year, when the Federal Trade Commission required SCI to sell off 53 funeral homes and 38 cemeteries before it would approve a $1.4 billion purchase of Steward Enterprises, the country’s second-largest funeral company. Sagel got his opening.

He and a partner, Albert Bloomfield, purchased Edward Sagel Funeral Direction and Danzansky-Goldberg Funeral Home in Rockville. Both companies specialize in Jewish burials.

Sagel would not disclose how much he originally sold the company for, nor how much he paid for it this time around.

He originally financed the company’s six-figure start-up costs with the help of local investors, including Lawrence A. Shulman of Potomac-based law firm Shulman Roger. In 1996, Sagel agreed to sell the company.

“We didn’t have a short-term exit strategy going in,” Sagel said. “We were in it for the long haul, it’s just that [the opportunity to sell] came about, and as a young guy, it gave me a financial jump-start.”

It hasn’t always been a smooth ride. A 2009 Washington Post investigation found that a funeral home owned by SCI was mishandling bodies and storing them in unrefrigerated garages. Some of those bodies, The Post reported, were of veterans waiting to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The following year, Sagel was charged with violating multiple provisions of the Maryland Morticians Act related to the mishandling of a veteran’s remains. The case was settled without any admission of wrongdoing. As part of a consent order, Sagel’s mortician’s license was suspended for 30 days, and he was placed on 18 months of probation. Sagel’s license remains on probation, according to the Maryland Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors.

Sagel declined to comment specifically on the charges.

With the recent purchase of the two funeral homes, Sagel and Bloomfield say they hope to improve service. They have already hired one additional employee and plan to hire more, Sagel said. He is also hoping to use technology to help customers select caskets on an iPad or computer instead of keeping 30 different caskets in stock.

“This has been a slow industry to convert to technology,” he said. “We can improve things like that, and ultimately have higher service standards.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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