Social entrepreneur Akhila Murphy wanted to help families honor their deceased loved ones in a personal way. So she launched Full Circle of Living and Dying in rural Nevada County, north of Sacramento. The tiny nonprofit, which she operates out of her private residence, serves as a resource for clients interested in home funerals.
The ancient custom, once common across the United States, remains legal in all 50 states. Rather than hold services in a chapel or funeral home, Full Circle clients use their own living rooms. As end-of-life doulas, Murphy and her colleague Donna Peizer provide emotional support during the final stages of life and attend home funerals when invited.
They do not interfere with medical care prior to death or mortuary services afterward. So the partners were shocked when the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau accused them of running an illegal funeral home in December 2019.
To continue operating, regulators told them they would need to become state-licensed funeral directors, and their organization would need to purchase commercial property and set it up for embalming and cold storage of bodies. “We don’t do either of those things,” Peizer says.
The cease-and-desist letter came with no description of code violations, so the partners asked regulators what laws they were breaking. “They really had no answer,” Peizer says. “They just said ‘many.’ But they didn’t cite any of them.”
Despite the lack of authority, the state ordered Murphy and Peizer to stop visiting clients in their homes and to stop advertising. Essentially, the state asked the partners to give up their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.
Rather than accept the violation, Murphy and Peizer partnered with the nonprofit Institute for Justice and fought back in court. The case, filed June 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, highlights something that should be obvious in a multicultural society: honoring the dead is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Services may be secular or religious, large or small, quiet or celebratory. Government agents should not interfere except to ensure public health and safety.
The only plausible reason to harass Full Circle is bureaucracy for its own sake, while protecting funeral directors from competition. The government admitted as much during one meeting with Murphy and Peizer, when a staff member dryly explained: “Funeral directors do not appreciate competition.”
The mortuary industry is not alone. Regulators in many parts of the economy routinely block competition for no good reason, especially when small business owners lack a commercial address. Some oversight boards use zoning laws, building codes and burdensome rules to restrict activity on private property.
Jacoyia Wakefield found out the hard way when she tried to offer daycare services at her home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Because she lives in a historic neighborhood with special permit requirements, the city temporarily shut down her business in 2014. Nashville is even more extreme. A citywide ban on home-based businesses means local musicians, hairstylists and other aspiring entrepreneurs face steep fines and even imprisonment if any customer comes to their property.
Occupational licensing rules, health codes, and educational requirements also work against home-based business owners. Dara Collier, a hair braider in Georgia, cannot shampoo her clients’ hair without a full cosmetology license.
Cheryl Wedin, a farmer in Wisconsin, cannot sell home-processed flour without first obtaining a commercial food license and installing a separate kitchen on her property built to restaurant standards. And Washington, D.C., daycare provider Ilumi Sanchez cannot watch children at her home without first graduating from college in the United States. Regulators say the law degree that she earned in the Dominican Republic prior to her immigration does not count.
None of these restrictions makes sense, especially considering U.S. Census data that show more than half of all businesses are “operated primarily from someone’s home.” Besides shielding established companies from competition, the regulations add cost and reduce economic opportunity for low-income workers.
Industry insiders appreciate the protectionism, which does not even end at death in California. A better approach is to get out of people’s way and let them create value. That is the key to bringing the economy back to life.
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