Court rules for embalmer who used crude terms
BOSTON (AP) — The highest court in Massachusetts on Friday gave a second chance to an embalmer who lost his license after graphic remarks he made about dead bodies were published in a newspaper.
Troy Schoeller’s license was revoked by a state board after the panel found he violated its code of conduct by talking about bodies in his care in an ‘‘unprofessional’’ manner.
Schoeller was quoted in The Boston Phoenix referring to the body of a baby as a ‘‘bearskin rug.’’ He also said he hated embalming fat people and described inhaling gases released by decomposing bodies.
Schoeller argued that while he could have chosen his words more carefully, he did not identify a particular person and nothing he said was false. He said the board violated his right to free speech.
The high 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.
Schoeller worked as an embalmer for 13 years in Florida and Massachusetts before his license was revoked in 2010.
In the article in the Phoenix, Schoeller discussed his specialty — reconstructive art — and described how he works to restore traumatized bodies.
Schoeller described how he started with a baby ‘‘that looked like a bearskin rug’’ and rebuilt him.
‘‘I had to rebuild it in nine hours. I used everything: duct tape, masking tape, tissue builder, wound filler. ... I put, like, coat hangers and caulk in there and put him into a little baby outfit. ... He looked awesome,’’ he said.
In an interview earlier this year, Schoeller said his remarks were an attempt to show how he took pride in his work and how it is an art to him.
The Board of Registration of Funeral Directors and Embalmers argued that Schoeller’s comments undermined the integrity of the profession.
But the court found that the board’s interest in maintaining the integrity of the profession ‘‘is insufficient to justify the type of restriction on speech at issue here.’’
Schoeller’s attorney, Jason Benzaken, said he understands the board’s desire to protect the profession, but it went too far.
‘‘I understand the board might want to advice certain ideas in terms of what an embalmer should say and shouldn’t say, but the manner in which they did it in this case is not the right way to do it,’’ he said.
Amie Breton, a spokeswoman for the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulations, which oversees the state Department of Professional Licensure, said the board is disappointed in the ruling, but respects the court’s decision.
‘‘In this case, the board did what it felt was appropriate to protect the integrity of the funeral services profession,’’ Breton said.
The high court vacated the board’s decision to revoke Schoeller’s license. Benzaken said it is unclear whether that means Schoeller’s license will automatically be reinstated or if Schoeller will return to work as an embalmer.
‘‘He loved his job. He loved what he did. What he suffered because of this action was emotionally devastating for him.’’ Benzaken said.
‘‘He’s had to rebuild his life. I don’t know what options this creates for him in the future.’’
Breton said Schoeller would need to apply to renew his registration and complete continuing education requirements and an exam before he could practice again.