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Mass. SJC sides with embalmer in free speech case

By Laura Crimaldi, director, New England First Amendment Coalition

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently sided with an embalmer who lost his license after crude comments he made about handling remains were published in The Boston Phoenix.

Troy Schoeller certainly didn’t spare anyone the gritty details of his life’s work when speaking to the Phoenix in 2006 for a feature story it published about him and his wife, Julie Carter. Carter is a pathologist’s assistant with experience performing autopsies.

In the story, Schoeller talked about the foul smell of decomposing bodies and inhaling the gases they expel. He said he doesn’t like to embalm fat people and explained exactly why he finds it distasteful.

He related an experience he had preparing a baby for burial that had experienced trauma. The baby, Schoeller said, looked like “a bearskin rug.”

By the time Schoeller finished his work, he said the baby looked “awesome.”

The state board that licenses embalmers revoked Schoeller’s license on the grounds that his comments violated the panel’s code of conduct because he spoke about bodies in his care in an ‘‘unprofessional’’ manner.

Schoeller argued the board violated his right to free speech.

The state’s highest court agreed.

“We conclude that, even under the board’s limited construction, a regulation prohibiting ‘unprofessional’ or ‘undignified and salacious’ comments is overboard, and therefore unconstitutional, because it restricts a substantial amount of protected speech,’’ Justice Fernande ‘‘Nan’’ Duffly wrote for the court in the unanimous ruling, according to an Associated Press account.

Schoeller’s attorney told the AP that he’s unsure whether his client will return to work as an embalmer.

I must admit the interview that Schoeller and Carter gave to the Phoenix was a difficult read. Who really wants to know the morbid details surrounding the work that goes into handling remains?

But Schoeller and Carter are passionate and enthusiastic about their chosen field. They have a shop in Allston called “Horror  Business.” On their honeymoon, they visited the Las Vegas medical examiner’s office to observe autopsies. They truly love what they do.

Schoeller’s devotion to his craft makes the actions of the state Department of Professional Licensure all the more disturbing.

Not only did the board violate Schoeller’s right to free speech, but it alienated him from his profession – one that is little understood or appreciated.

Schoeller’s comments were indelicate, of course, but he made them in the context of trying to explain what he does to make bodies presentable to loved ones at the difficult time of burial. And that’s the kind of person you want to handle the remains of friends and family.

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