Death match 

New cremation business faces legal challenge

On a recent frosty morning, Missoula mortician Jason Worman waves his hand over an array of intricately carved wooden cremation urns that line the shelves inside his fledgling Fifth Street business.

"Birch, cherry, poplar," Worman says proudly, showing off his new stock. He adds that the urns come in single and double, meaning that couples have the option of staying together in perpetuity.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Despite a series of challenges, Jason and Barbara Worman hope to open Missoula Family Cremation Services this week.

Worman takes a deep breath before he comes out with his big announcement: He and his wife, Barbara, aim to open a new business, Missoula Family Cremation Services, this week. The mortician pauses and chooses his words carefully, largely because of a pending lawsuit that aims to keep him from doing business in Missoula.

The lawsuit is only one of several obstacles Worman has faced these past four months. The saga started in September, when Worman quit his job at Sunset Memorial Funeral Home after working as a funeral director there for nearly eight years. By the time he resigned, Worman already had a pretty good idea of how his ideal funeral home would operate. He envisioned a streamlined service, one offering no-frills cremations at an affordable price.

"I heard it time and time and time again from families that there just needs to be another option," Worman says.

Nationally, Americans are increasingly choosing cremation over a traditional burial, with some surveys showing the trend growing by about 2 percent per year. Worman says that roughly 80 percent of local residents opt for the much more affordable service. A burial with all of the bells and whistles, including a headstone, embalming and a funeral home viewing, can run upwards of $10,000. Worman says he can offer cremation for less than $2,000.

"That includes everything," he says.

Worman's plan, however, isn't sitting well with everyone, especially his former employers. In October, Evans and Vertin, the company that owns Sunset Memorial and most of Missoula's death-related enterprises, including Garden City Funeral Home and the Cremation Society of the Rockies, filed a lawsuit against Worman alleging that the mortician is violating non-compete agreements he signed off on annually—and was compensated for—while employed by the company.

Based on that claim, Evans and Vertin is asking Montana's Fourth Judicial Court to stop Worman from doing business in Missoula. "Jason Worman has hung up his shingle, contrary to the covenant," says Elizabeth O'Halloran, the company's Missoula attorney.

O'Halloran says that courts have found that three years from the time employment ceases is an acceptable amount of time to satisfy such non-compete clauses. But Worman's attorney, Thomas Orr, argues in a counterclaim filed at the end of October that Evans and Vertin is using such agreements unlawfully to protect the company's stake in the local funeral home industry. The end result, Orr says in court documents, is "...effectively creating a monopoly on the funeral business..."

Worman's camp isn't alone in decrying a dearth of cremation and burial options in Missoula. Lisa Doherty Navarro, who lives next door to Worman's proposed operation, also expressed frustration during a Dec. 10 public hearing before the Missoula City Council to vet the merits—and potential downfalls—of granting Worman a permit to do business from the Fifth Street location.

Doherty Navarro testified said she was at first "a little taken aback" by Worman's proposal to house bodies next door before transporting them to Ronan for cremation, but she knows all too well how expensive a family member's death can be. She told council that when her 22-year-old daughter died five years ago, she couldn't find a funeral home in Missoula that was willing to work with her family's limited financial means.

"I had to drive all the way to Hamilton to find a cremation service that was willing to work with my military son-in-law and defer payment until my daughter's life insurance policy through the military paid out," Doherty Navarro said. "The other major cremation and burial service here in town wanted almost $4,000 for my daughter's cremation and payment was to be made up front."

Missoula City Councilman Dick Haines joined Doherty Navarro in expressing support for Worman's business. While recalling challenges that he encountered several years ago after his father died, Haines explained why. "We found out that there is a monopoly in this town," he said. "We didn't have any choice about where we could do it. We didn't have any choice about how much it was going to cost...there needs to be competition."

In an 11-1 vote, council approved Worman's conditional use permit. Jon Wilkins cast the lone "no" vote.

Now that Worman is sanctioned by the city and licensed by the Montana Board of Funeral Services (another complicated process), the last major hurdle to overcome is the litigation.

On behalf of Evans and Vertin, O'Halloran denies allegations of monopolistic business practices. Ultimately, though, she says those claims belong with the Montana Attorney General's Office, not in a contractual dispute between an employer and an employee. "The monopoly aspect of it is not really at play."

O'Halloran is optimistic the court will find for Evans and Vertin, forcing Worman to take his business elsewhere. But as of Dec. 17, no hearing has been scheduled and Worman is moving ahead with his plans. "We'd love to open by Friday," he says.

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