Law on Md. Mortuaries Has Guardian Angel at State House

Charles Brown and son Eric Brown want Maryland to revise laws that govern the funeral industry in Maryland.
Charles Brown and son Eric Brown want Maryland to revise laws that govern the funeral industry in Maryland. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- The corpse was in the basement, in limbo.

Betty Kephart, a Hagerstown cosmetologist, had succumbed to a virulent lung disease the night before. Her body had been loaded into a white van and driven to the funeral home that Charles S. Brown had built at a grassy hillside cemetery called Rest Haven.

There's no good time to lose a loved one, but in this case, the timing could hardly have been worse. That day, the mortician who held the license to run Brown's funeral home had quit unexpectedly, and in Maryland -- unlike in any other state -- there are only two ways to own a funeral home: Be a mortician, or possess one of 59 special ownership licenses.

Brown called the state's funeral regulators, begging for an exception. "Look, we have a body in the basement," he recalled telling them. "No," they replied. "You're closed."

It was at that moment of profound professional humiliation, Brown said, that his effort to change Maryland's funeral law became a crusade, a 10-year undertaking that will resume when the legislature reconvenes next week.

He has been thwarted at every turn. Maryland's leading mortuary owners say the law guards against an invasion of mega-corporations. But the law also has given those owners a virtual lock on the local trade, which some believe is why the state's funeral costs are among the nation's highest. A 2001 industry survey showed that a funeral in Maryland cost, on average, $166 more than it does elsewhere.

What Brown has discovered in his crusade: A bill that might seem perfectly logical to legislative leaders, the Federal Trade Commission and the state attorney general can be blocked by 59 funeral home owners and deep-sixed by a single delegate -- 77-year-old Hattie N. Harrison. Harrison's resistance demonstrates not only the Democrat's loyalty to an influential constituent in her East Baltimore district but also offers a case study in how power is wielded in Annapolis.

When Brown purchased a gently rolling cemetery property 15 years ago, he staked his future and $1 million in borrowed money on construction of a funeral home.

He knew Maryland laws allowed little room for newcomers but "figured we would go to Annapolis, explain the situation and they would see the need for some changes," Brown said. "We were naive."

The law dates to World War II, when legislators, trying to rid the state of hucksters and fly-by-night mortuaries, passed a measure requiring all funeral homes to be owned by certified morticians. An exception was made for 59 homes already open -- corporate entities that employed morticians but weren't necessarily owned by one.

Only those special-license holders could hire and fire morticians as they saw fit and pass the businesses on to children or sell them.

Brown couldn't get one of the 59 licenses, which fetch roughly $250,000. He persuaded his son Eric to go to mortuary school so he could eventually run the home. In the interim, the only way to operate was to lease it to a mortician.

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