Politics & Government

If NC makes it easier to get in the funeral business, critics say one lawmaker will benefit

Beechwood Cemetery graves decorated with U.S. flags for Memorial Day in 2010.
Beechwood Cemetery graves decorated with U.S. flags for Memorial Day in 2010. dvaughan@heraldsun.com

State funeral board leaders say proposed legislation to create a “provisional” license for funeral directors is specifically designed to help a lawmaker get his license without fulfilling current requirements.

The provisional licensing proposal surfaced Wednesday in a Senate committee as an amendment to a non-controversial funeral licensing bill.

“It is clearly intended for a member of this House who is not a licensee but wants to be,” said Mark Blake, vice president of the N.C. Board of Funeral Service. “This is a slap in the face of every licensee past and present in this state.”

Only one of the four legislators who work in the funeral business isn’t a licensed funeral director: Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford.

Hunter told the NC Insider he did not request the legislation, but he didn’t respond when asked if he plans to apply for a provisional license or if he meets the qualifications in the amendment.

Howard Hunte_fitted.jpeg
Rep. Howard Hunter

Sen. Harper Peterson, D-New Hanover, introduced the amendment on behalf of Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, whose name appears on the document. But Woodard said he simply ran the amendment at the request of Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg and owner of a funeral home. He’s one of the sponsors of the original bill, House Bill 554.

“It may be members of the legislature that benefit from it, it may be members of some other entity, but that’s not what this is all about,” Alexander said. “It’s about liberalizing entry into funeral service. This is aimed at trying to make sure we still have a good supply of individuals who can work in funeral service.”

According to a letter from the Board of Funeral Service to lawmakers, an earlier proposal for the provisional license would have made it available only to elected officials.

“We do not believe that the introduction of legislation with the sole purpose of personally benefiting a legislative colleague is appropriate or advisable; it is an unprincipled and improper solution for a non-existent problem,” board president Stephen Herndon wrote. “The responsible, dutiful resolution is for this individual to complete any remaining requirements for a Funeral Director license as would be expected of any other candidate.”

Rep. Jamie Boles, R-Moore and co-sponsor of the bill, said that the earlier proposal for the license “was a draft that was confidential ... which they (the funeral board) shared with everybody” and “breached confidentiality.”

Alexander downplayed the draft idea. “You’ll often find that many things get thrown up and discussed and don’t make it into what is presented,” he said.

Alexander and Boles said the provisional license would help people who are licensed in other states and move to North Carolina, or longtime funeral home employees seeking to move up to a licensed role.

But the funeral board says there are already procedures to license funeral directors from other states; the proposed criteria for the provisional license doesn’t mention out-of-state licenses.

Provisional licenses would be available to anyone who has an undergraduate degree or associate degree in applied science “in any field,” as well as have a certified resident traineeship or five years of experience under a licensed funeral director. By contrast, a standard funeral director license requires a degree in mortuary science and the passage of an entrance exam.

John Harris, president of the Funeral Directors & Morticians Association of North Carolina, said the change “weakens the strength of the professionalism of the funeral service practice.”

Alexander dismissed the opposition from the industry officials. “Unfortunately, over time, we’ve seen that whenever there’s a movement to change the industry, there’s been pushback where folks just want to defend the status quo,” he said.

The amendment and the full bill were both approved unanimously in a committee Thursday over opposition from the industry groups.