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Cemetery owners seek law change

March 08, 2001

Cemetery owners seek law change



By LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - Competition for the dead is heating up in Maryland.

Cemetery owners are lobbying the Maryland General Assembly for the right to own on-site funeral homes in the name of better service and free competition.

Opponents portray the story as a David and Goliath one, with morticians complaining that it would encourage conglomerates to take over family-owned funeral homes.

Charles Brown, owner of Rest Haven Cemetery in Hagerstown, testified for the law change Wednesday in the House Economic Matters Committee.

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Two years ago, Brown built a funeral home at the cemetery off Pennsylvania Avenue but had to lease the operation to a licensed mortician. His son won't be able to inherit the combined operation.

"If I pass away, it will all be sold," he said.

Under Maryland law, funeral homes must be owned by licensed funeral directors, their surviving spouses or by private companies that holds one of 59 corporate licenses issued by the state.

The state quit issuing licenses in 1945, although no one who testified at the hearing could explain why.

The cap has caused the value of the licenses to skyrocket. One recently sold for $200,000, said Devin J. Doolan, a lobbyist for the Maryland Free State Cemetery and Funeral Association.

"I can't see any sensible reason why the state would want to limit competition in that fashion," testified Del. Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, a sponsor of the bill along with Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

Since the moratorium, there has been no difference in complaints about funeral homes owned by corporations and funeral directors, Doolan said.

"This is all about ownership. It's like saying only a pharmacist can own a drug store," said Richard Cody, owner of Rest Haven Cemetery in Frederick, Md.

Opponents argued that any new funeral homes should be owned and operated by people who are licensed to do the job.

Members of the committee had numerous questions about the bill and the state's current law. It was the first time the committee has dealt with the issue, which had previously been before the House Environmental Matters Committee.

"I'm starting to think I don't want to ever die because I don't want to face all this," said committee Chairman Del. Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.

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