PERHAPS IT WAS too much to expect a group

of morticians to give someone a new lease on life, but in Maryland, five of them have decided to deny former congressman Charles C. Diggs Jr. a legitimate route to rehabilitation. In a vote as narrow as the minds of its majority, the Maryland Board of Morticians rejected an application by Mr. Diggs for an apprentice license on grounds that his conviction for mail fraud could affect his work as a funeral director. According to the board secretary, this was the first time the board has denied a license because of questions about an applicant's character--and if this is the kind of flimsy evidence upon which denials are to be based, it had better be the last time.

It is not as if Mr. Diggs were a novice: he worked in the business for years in Detroit before his convictions on 11 counts of mail fraud and 18 counts of making false statements. For those offenses, he served his time in a federal prison camp and then moved to Fort Washington in Prince George's County and planned to open a funeral home in the county. But Mr. Diggs needs a year's apprenticeship before a full Maryland license may be granted. In the meantime, he has been working for a funeral home in Baltimore.

The board's official rationale--or excuse--refers to an advisory from the state attorney general's office finding "little doubt" that Mr. Diggs' convictions "involve turpitude" and are "rationally related" to a mortician's work. "The potential for abuse and financial misdealing . . . is apparent," the report said.

So, too, is the potential for misinterpreting or misunderstanding the motives behind the majority. Already, Mr. Diggs' chief lawyer, Clarence Mitchell, has made a point of his client's color, adding that Maryland "has a history of denying opportunities to its black citizens that have traditionally been available to whites."

The evidence for this sort of charge is just as flimsy as the board's rationale. But there is evidence of quite another Maryland history--corruption at the highest levels, followed by re-acceptance into the working community: a former governor, even before he is officially released from prison, is offered a job in Baltimore's finance department. And a former vice president of the United States also is back in business in the private sector.

Morticians have traditionally limited their own number, and this closed-shop mentality may well have played into the decision. But none of these explanations is persuasive. Mr. Diggs has paid his debt to society and he should be allowed