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NY Times – New York State Makes It Legal to Cry in Your Funeral Pie

By Sarah Maslin Nir, July 26

In the West, a homey casserole of slivered potatoes, sour cream and canned mushroom soup is so often served at wakes and memorials that it is commonly known as “funeral potatoes.” In Pennsylvania Dutch country, the go-to dish is a custard and raisin pastry called “funeral pie.”

Yet in New York State’s funeral homes, arcane rules had long forbidden food and drinks. But last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, signed a law permitting funeral parlors to serve light refreshments and nonalcoholic drinks, joining 46 other states where the bereaved have the option of crying into their potatoes and pie.

“Culturally, we use food as a socializing element in all sorts of circumstances,” said Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat who represents Midtown Manhattan. Mr. Gottfried was a sponsor of the legislation along with State Senator Betty Little, a Republican who represents parts of northern New York. “To me, the notion that at a funeral you couldn’t get a cup of tea or something to eat to stave off hunger or maintain your blood-sugar level just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Each state has its own rules governing funeral procedure. Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania ban food in funeral homes, but that is changing. Pennsylvania’s ban was lifted in 2012 after a group of funeral directors sued the state, but it was reinstated two years later when a federal appeals court overturned the ruling. Last year, Massachusetts lawmakers permitted food to be served, pending the drafting of new regulations.

“Food is a vehicle for memory, and so it seems so inherent in the process and ritual of remembering and celebrating a life to have present the foods that that person and that family loved in their lifetime,” said Niki Russ Federman, a fourth-generation owner of Russ & Daughters, a Manhattan restaurant and caterer. It regularly caters services outside funeral parlors, like shivas, or memorials.

In states with bans, the rules mostly came about in the 1950s, put in place ostensibly to prevent competition with restaurants or to streamline services offered by funeral homes, according to interviews with 10 funeral directors. Some have cited sanitation concerns, but Joshua Slocum, the executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a consumer education nonprofit, said those roots go further back, to the Victorian era. They are based, he said, in “pre-germ theory” that dead bodies could spread disease through the ether.

“It’s an emotional reaction to a fear of death,” Mr. Slocum said of the bans. “In reality, it is ridiculous to be afraid of getting sick from an inert body that is not talking, not breathing and not sneezing.”

The new rules in New York allow refreshments to be served, but do not allow funeral homes to become caterers themselves.Not all in the funeral business appreciate the change.

“I’m of the old school,” said Marie Keenan, the president and an owner of the Daniel Keenan Funeral Home in Albany. Her small funeral home is carpeted, and she fears crumbs and spills. There is also something that feels undignified about snacking near a loved one lying in repose, Ms. Keenan added.

“I feel absolutely that there should be a social gathering,” she said. “After a wake.”

Nevertheless, to remain competitive now, Ms. Keenan said, she may have to allow food.

In the Brownsville neighborhood, Anthony R. Cassieri, the owner of Brooklyn Funeral Home and Cremation Service, derided the plan as ill conceived and said it would open the door for unscrupulous owners to add fees to services. “You’ll have bugs,” he said. “It’s just going to be an absolute nightmare. It’s going to run rampant. People are going to bring a pizza.”