Even when the dead bodies Zachary Smeltz lifts for a living are hefty, he makes sure to handle even the burliest corpse in a gentle manner, masking any exertion. “Treat every case like that’s your mom that you’re transferring,” is the motto Mr. Smeltz imparts on the staff of the mortuary transport business he owns that sends him all over New Jersey and Pennsylvania and to other locales, picking up bodies.
Mr. Smeltz is part of an unusual niche in the labor market: He is among a proliferating group of independent entrepreneurs capitalizing on the need to collect the dead from houses, hospitals, morgues and accident scenes. It is a little-known link in the chain of death-to-final-resting-place that is growing as places like funeral homes and hospices as well as governments cut their budgets and increasingly outsource the transport of the dead.
A class-action suit unfolding in California has opened a window onto this often lightly regulated industry: Charons of the highway, who shuttle corpses from one place to another. While in some places, like New York, such work must be carried out under the auspices of licensed funeral directors, in others, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, private contractors without any special permits may pick up bodies.
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