The funeral business is one of the few that is said to be recession-proof because death is the only universal certainty. But, according to a federal judge, the regulatory framework of the business in Pennsylvania also is immune from modern business principles, to the point of being unconstitutional, and needs to be changed.

District Judge John Jones III, of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, ruled last week that most of the 60-year-old state law governing the funeral home industry itself is moribund and that the regulatory board that oversees the industry is "ossified." The 1952 law and the manner in which the board has overseen the industry have created cartel-like control of the industry to the detriment of would-be competitors and consumers, he found.

The suit was brought by a group of 30 funeral directors. Judge Jones' ruling affects everything from the use of trade names, to restrictions on funeral home ownership, to the scope of services that funeral directors may offer to consumers.

Judge Jones' ruling could prove to be very important for consumers, in terms of the services that funeral homes are allowed to offer and funeral pricing, since part of the ruling would open the door to greater competition.

The state Board of Funeral Directors has not yet decided whether to appeal Judge Jones' ruling, which provided the board with the opportunity to amend regulations that the judge found to be unconstitutional. The judge noted a previous ruling recommending changes and the board's "hesitance" or "outright recalcitrance" in failing to effect them.

The Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association wants the board to appeal. But like all public bodies, the board is supposed to represent the public interest. Rather than appeal, the board should take up Judge Jones' challenge to adopt regulations to "appropriately govern the funeral industry in this, the 21st century."