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Death becomes her: Plotting a career in funeral law

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Funeral Law
An insurance defense litigator digs into a specialty that would mortify other lawyers

Death freaks people out. Popular misconceptions aside, lawyers are still people, too. And, as such, death freaks many—if not most—of them out.

That’s where I come in. My practice is focused on mortuary law, or that which concerns the disposition of human remains and regulates the funeral industry, including funeral homes, funeral directors, embalmers, cemeteries, and crematories.

Me? I’m digging it

I bet you didn’t see that one coming. Well, to be honest, neither did I. In law school, my instincts told me I should become a defense attorney.

After interning as a public defender for a year, I decided that civil defense might be a better fit—specifically, insurance defense litigation.

Fortunately, I was able to find an in-house clerkship with an insurance company the summer after law school and then joined the defense litigation practice group of a mid-sized firm after passing the bar.

Insurance defense is certainly not for everyone, but it was—and still is—a great fit for me. I loved all the different types of cases I was able to work on across the defense litigation practice spectrum—from personal injury to product liability and professional liability.

One day, a partner sent out an email to the associate attorneys asking for someone who was willing to “do some research about dead bodies.” I was ecstatic and jumped at the opportunity.

The next day (after, I would later learn, no one else had responded to her email), the partner followed up with further instructions about the assignment, and I was beyond excited.

Just to put things in context—I’ve always been fascinated with death, even as a young child. For my sixth birthday, I asked my parents for an anatomical skeleton model (to which, although surely creeped out, they obliged). Because I’m one of those people who knew I wanted to be a lawyer since I was a kid—eight years old, if I recall correctly—a career in the death-care industry never even really crossed my mind as an option.

But my fascination with all things morbid and macabre never died down (pun intended). So when I saw the partner’s email that day asking for research about dead bodies, I knew I was the right associate for the job. And things began to fall into place from there.

Immersed in embalming

As cliché as it sounds, I wouldn’t so much say that I found mortuary law, but rather it found me. A couple hours of research and the most awesome memo I ever had the pleasure of drafting later, the partner was impressed by my eagerness to learn about this strange area of the law and gave me another assignment.

I was thrilled to complete it so that we could continue our conversation as she began to reveal the details of her case. It was an insurance defense matter in which someone was alleging that our client funeral home, funeral director, and embalmer had negligently embalmed a man’s remains.

That man had been exhumed 18 months post-interment (burial, for those of you not up on the lingo) so that a second autopsy could be performed (yes, that is totally a real thing) to determine cause of death in connection with an underlying wrongful death action.

I could talk about this case all day—and often do—to friends and colleagues. (I’m lots of fun at cocktail parties, as you can imagine.) But the point is that my first research project eventually led to me second-chairing the trial (which we won, with a unanimous defense verdict) a year and a half later.

To be honest, as happy I was about the defense verdict, it was a bittersweet time for me after trial because it also meant that my time working on the case was over, and I knew I’d miss it. In a candid conversation with the partner—who, mind you, is very much one of those people who is freaked out by death—I confessed that I wished I could just do cases like this forever.

Her reply: She never wanted to have to do one of these cases again. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Mortuary law is unique in many ways, in addition to the obvious macabre subject matter. For starters, the funeral industry is regulated not only by state law, but also by federal law—specifically, the Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule.

Funeral establishments and practitioners in most states are also heavily regulated in an administrative context by a department of labor or a funeral and cemetery board, sometimes both.

Because of this, I encounter a very diverse range of issues in my practice. Over the years, it has also evolved to include a more advisory aspect as well, such as risk management, best practices, and liability avoidance.

Bury your boredom

For whatever reason, when people find out that I’m an attorney, one of the most common questions I’m asked is, “What’s the worst part about being a lawyer?” The first time someone asked me this question, I was taken aback. But the honest answer just came out: “The worst part about being a lawyer is dealing with other lawyers who hate their job.”

I mention this because it’s far too common for folks to feel trapped within the confines of the legal profession just because they have a law degree. Or to feel stuck practicing a particular type of law because that’s what they’ve been doing for X amount of years.

But that’s so far from the truth.

The best advice I can offer is that if you don’t end up loving your job, find a different one. If you don’t end up loving the area of law in which you’re practicing, try something else.

It will never be too late to make a change to find something that’s a better fit. Who knows? With a little luck and good timing, it might just find you first.

Emily Albrecht Emily Albrecht is an attorney in Seattle, where she focuses her practice on mortuary litigation and insurance defense, including professional liability, product liability, and asbestos litigation.