JACKSON, Miss. — A federal judge opened Mississippi to independent casket dealers who promise cheaper prices, striking down a state law that had allowed sales only by licensed funeral home directors.

Thursday's ruling made Mississippi the third Southern state this year to lose a court fight over laws restricting casket sales.

The state had argued that the law addressed health concerns, because human remains need to be quickly buried.

U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour Jr. ruled that Mississippi's 28-year-old law was unconstitutional, violating the 14th Amendment protection from arbitrary regulation.

"It does not make sense that any possible ignorance or incompetence of an unlicensed dealer would delay burial as such a dealer is selling what amounts to be a glorified box," Barbour wrote.

He said the law leads to higher prices, harming the people it is supposed to protect.

Guy B. Roberts Jr., chairman of the state Funeral and Service Board, said Friday that he hoped the board would appeal.

The law was challenged last October by Casket Royale Inc. of Hampton Falls, N.H., which had been supplying caskets to two Mississippi dealers.

The dealers can do business with living customers making advance funeral plans, but the law banned them from selling caskets directly to families or representatives of the deceased.

Casket Royale said in court that some funeral homes mark up casket prices by as much as 300 percent.

Steve Holland, a funeral director and state lawmaker, said many Mississippi funeral homes have reasonable prices and would not be hurt by the competition.

"I don't think you're going to see casket stores on every corner," said Holland, who did not support the state law. "Mississippi has a stable and fair funeral industry, which cannot be said of all areas of the country."

Mark Ginsberg, the owner of Casket Royale, said Friday that the old law had prevented his company from expanding in Mississippi.

"We could have opened eight more stores but people were gunshy of the law," Ginsberg said.

A 1994 federal ruling permitted third-party casket sellers, but states can still restrict them.

In March, a South Carolina judge struck down that state's practice of requiring casket dealers to have embalming rooms, chapels and hearses. A federal judge ruled in August that Tennessee's funeral director law violated the 14th Amendment protection from arbitrary regulation.