A grave injustice? New Jersey's ban on headstone sales takes effect

Religious institutions in New Jersey are no longer allowed to sell grave markers, thanks to a new state law that took effect this week.

Signed into law a year ago by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, the new regulations target the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, which in 2013 began selling grave markers for burial plots within the archdiocese’s cemeteries. The Monument Builders Association of New Jersey sued the archdiocese and then successfully lobbied for the passage of a law to protect their members from competition.

Christie signed the bill in March 2015 but delayed its implementation for one year.

“We have dreaded this day for a year,” said Andrew P. Schafer, executive director of the Newark Archdiocese Office of Catholic Cemeteries.

But the courts will likely get the final say in the matter.

The grave marker business is a lucrative one. The archdiocese made about $500,000 in the first year after it started marketing headstones directly to consumers, and the MBA argued that its members lost more than one-third of their business.

The archdiocese’s business model differed from that of the for-profit memorialists. While the businesses simply sell headstones to consumers, the archdiocese sells “inscription rights,” retaining ownership of the headstone while allowing the bereaved to engrave a message on it. This means maintenance of the headstones in the archdiocese’s 11 Catholic cemeteries will be at the Church’s expense in perpetuity.

With the threat of losing more business to the Catholics, the Monument Builders Association sued the archdiocese in 2013, but the lawsuit failed because it was not illegal for religious institutions to sell grave markers.

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