Funeral Industry News

New Jersey is One of the Last States to Lift Ban on Food in Funeral Homes

August 20, 2019

New Jersey is One of the Last States to Lift Ban on Food in Funeral Homes

Here in the South, food and funerals go together like red beans and rice or biscuits and gravy. We show up on the doorstep, casserole (or two) in hand, before the body makes it to the funeral home. Besides being integral to our tradition of southern hospitality, providing food to a grieving family is how we show we care about them. To us, there truly is comfort in food. 

A handful of states up north, however, have only recently allowed food and funerals to peacefully coexist. New Jersey was one of the last hold-outs. This month, though, New Jersey funeral homes can now offer mourners more than water and a breath mint. Senate bill 2807, which was signed into law on August 9, will finally allow New Jersey funeral homes to serve food and drinks, but only at the discretion of the owner.

Why the food-at-funerals ban?

Many states enacted laws prohibiting food at funeral homes in the 1960s and 1970s in response to public health concerns. These laws didn’t seem to specify exactly what those concerns may be, although speculation cites a general fear of diseases from an “unclean” body spreading through food. 

In 2013, Connecticut funeral directors asked the state to provide justification for the law banning food at funeral homes. Researchers found little rationale for the ban when lawmakers enacted it. The only justification was then-board members’ “personal position(s) against food service in funeral homes.”

Connecticut also found no public health risk associated with the practice. They found no reason food should be prohibited, as long as “it was not served in a room used to embalm or prepare deceased bodies.” The research stated that to allow drinks to be served, but not food, was “illogical.” Based on this evidence, the law in Connecticut was overturned. Since 2013, New York, Massachusetts, and now (finally), New Jersey have repealed similar laws. 

In 2012, Pennsylvania deemed their 1952 law against food at funeral homes unconstitutional, but reinstated a similar ban in 2014; that ruling still stands today.

Cons… and pros

Friday’s decision in New Jersey just seemed to make sense to many people. Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, who sponsored the bill, said “in this day and age” people are time-strapped, sometimes driving an hour to pay their respects after work without time to stop and pick up dinner on the way. 

The decision pleased George Kelder, executive director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association. “There are relatively few things in life that human beings do without food and beverage involved,” Kelder commented in February. “You’ve got individuals at the worst time of their life and you cannot offer them any food of comfort.”

Your funeral establishment may opt out of offering food and drinks to family for practical reasons. You may be concerned about cleaning up crumbs or damage from spills and stains. Maybe you don’t have the staff or appropriate facilities to accommodate timely food purchases, delivery, or service. The scope of your food options can vary, though. You might provide doughnuts and coffee to families during planning meetings but decline to offer sandwiches and sides during visitation. 

From cradle to grave

Funeral homes in the Dignity Memorial network offer catered receptions or food and beverage delivery to allow “family and friends to continue spending time together while sharing memories and comfort.” According to Dignity’s website, the firm works with “licensed, professional caterers” to provide options ranging from “simple beverage service” to “passed hors d’oeuvres in a cocktail setting” to a “formal seated dinner.” The service is available at the funeral home (where allowed by law), at the home of a family member, or at another venue.

Offering catering or opening part of your facility to the public for catered events could be a new revenue stream. In 2011, Connecting Directors reported a Texas funeral home’s addition of a Starbucks coffee shop as well as gift and flower shops. A South Carolina funeral home opened a similar operation within their facility in 2012, complete with on-staff baristas.

More recently, Harris Funeral Home in Rochester, New York built the Harris Family Center on its grounds to accommodate receptions of all kinds. The Center is available as a “home-like atmosphere to host a funeral or memorial reception” or serve as a “private retreat between visitation hours.” It’s also available for baby and bridal showers. 

What’s your opinion on food and funerals? We’d love to hear what your organization offers.