man walks past a hearse parked outside the Family Center at
Wisconsin Memorial Park in Brookfield, Wis., on Friday, Feb.
14, 2014. Wisconsin is one of nine states with laws that
prevent cemeteries from owning funeral homes, and funeral
directors worry that if the ban is lifted, places like
Wisconsin Memorial Park could push them out of business.
MADISON — When
Kevin Pagenkopf's son told his first-grade teacher what he wants
to be when he grows up, she didn't expect him to say funeral
Pagenkopf said he
hopes his 7-year-old son will be able to take over the family's
101-year-old Oconomowoc funeral home, but the business' future
could be in jeopardy if the state changes its laws to allow
competition from cemeteries.
Wisconsin is one
of nine states that prohibit cemeteries from owning funeral homes.
A bill under consideration in the Legislature would scrap that
decades-old law and allow cemeteries and funeral homes to be
operated together. Those working against the bill say it's a bad
idea because it would open the way for some big players to move
into the state and drive down costs, only to hike them later. But
supporters argue deregulating the funeral industry would let an
open market determine fair prices.
national funeral home associations representing more than 400
directors in Wisconsin oppose the bill, far outnumbering
supporters. There are only a small handful of commercial
cemeteries in Wisconsin.
that many family owned funeral homes (anymore), when 100 years
ago, that's pretty much all you had," Pagenkopf said. He
added, "The track record with these companies that come in,
sure they're cheaper to begin with, but as soon as we fail and go
out of business or sell out, that's when their prices go back
The state's laws
currently prohibit cemetery owners from operating a funeral home
on the same property. Wisconsin funeral home owners also can't own
cemeteries elsewhere in the state, and there can be no commercial
relationship between cemeteries and funeral homes.
mark snow-covered gravestones on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, at
Wisconsin Memorial Park in Brookfield, Wis. Wisconsin
legislators are considering a bill that would end the
state's ban on funeral homes owning and operating
cemeteries. The bill also could end cemeteries' property tax
prohibition would allow companies to provide in-house services or
point families to companies that could provide them. It's a
concept cemetery owners say there's nothing wrong with.
make any sense for the consumer or for me as the cemetery operator
not to have any commercial relationship with a funeral
operator," said Peter Pakalski, who owns 14 cemeteries in
Pakalski owns 16
more cemeteries outside the state. He and his wife have given the
bill's sponsor, Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, $1,550 since
2006, according to campaign finance records.
old, archaic statute that needs to be changed," Pakalski
said. "I want to buy some funeral homes, and the state says I
can't and it's not right."
stakeholder in the debate is Service Corporation International,
the country's largest cemetery and funeral services organization.
SCI owns 13
funeral homes and five cemeteries in Wisconsin after acquiring the
second-largest group, Stewart Enterprises, in December. The merger
also puts SCI out of compliance with state law.
prohibition doesn't allow for free market competition," said
Vern Pixley, senior managing director of operations with SCI.
SCI has some
time, though Pixley wasn't sure how much, before it must sell
either funeral homes or cemeteries, or possibly face $200-per-day
fines for each violation. Cemeteries aren't subject to property
taxes, so Pixley said the company plans to sell off its funeral
homes. He said the group works closely with regulators to ensure
it remains a "good corporate citizen."
point to SCI as a big factor in the proposed legislation. The
merger means SCI will own Wisconsin Memorial Park, a Brookfield
cemetery that built a building some say would operate as a funeral
home if the law is changed.
pay for a beer (at Lambeau Field) is not what you'd pay for a beer
in a grocery store or in a bar," said Adam Raschka, executive
director of the WFDA. "If you're allowed to create a
monopoly, that's what's gonna happen."
Raschka said the
law is in place to prevent monopolies from trapping families into
dealing with bigger owners, no matter the cost. He said funeral
directors also have court rulings in their corner.
The Court of
Appeals in 1998 affirmed a circuit court ruling that said the
state's prohibition is constitutional.
cemetery owners point to a 1993 Federal Trade Commission letter to
longtime Democratic Rep. Marlin Schneider. The letter said
allowing businesses to operate both services under one roof
"might in turn lead to lower prices and better service to
The bill isn't
the first attempt outside the courts to overturn the ban. There
were attempts in the 1990s and last session that both ended up
The issue isn't
likely to get resolved this year. Kleefisch said it's unlikely the
bill would make it out of committee before the session ends.