The Benedictines' Casket Controversy

It's nearly impossible to argue that the Benedictine monks of St. Joseph Abbey in Louisiana should not be allowed to sell their simple, handmade wooden caskets. Unless, of course, you're a funeral director concerned about your own profits. According to CNS, Louisiana law "allows only licensed funeral directors to sell caskets to the public," which has caused some problems for the monks:

A few months after a story about the [monks'] new casket-making venture was published in 2007 by the Clarion Herald, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the State Board [of Embalmers and Funeral Directors] issued a "cease and desist" order to the abbey's woodworking team.


Over the last two years, the abbey has attempted to get the state law changed, but bills that would have accomplished that never made it out of committee in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

Attempts at a compromise with the funeral home directors failed, Deacon Coudrain said.

"One offer we got was that they would buy it from us for half of what we were selling it for, then they would add $1,000 to it and sell it to the public," Deacon Coudrain said.

The monks have chosen to sue, and with good reason. There are no safety or health concerns surrounding the monks' caskets. In fact, according to Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm representing the monks, Louisiana residents have an even simpler burial option:

"You don't even need a casket to be buried in Louisiana or any other state," Rowes said. "You can be buried directly in the ground. You can be buried in a bed sheet. This is just a box. The only reason the law exists, and the only reason they're enforcing it, is to protect the profits of a private industry group."

At a news conference on the steps of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the institute passed out media kits with the catch phrase "Free the Monks and Free Enterprise."

Rowes said the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, which represents licensed funeral homes in the state, also has issued subpoenas to Abbot Brown and Deacon Coudrain "and are now threatening them with fines of up to $2,500 for every casket they sell."

Under the current law, in order to sell the caskets the monks would need to become licensed funeral directors, which, according to a Louisiana politics blog, is no easy task:

Abbot Brown and his monks would have to apprentice at a licensed funeral home for a year, pass a test involving all kinds of skills and knowledge not germane to the basic carpentry required to make caskets and then convert the monastery to a “funeral establishment” by making all kinds of facility “upgrades” like installing embalming equipment. Otherwise, they can’t sell seven-foot long wooden boxes that might hold dead people in them.

CNS says "the monks are hoping for a quick hearing and a stay of a proceeding against the abbey by the Louisiana funeral directors' board." You can see the caskets in question, and hear from the monks and the Institute for Justice in the passionately argued (if slightly overly dramatic, at times) video from IJ, below.

Kerry Weber


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7 years 5 months ago
Mr. Reidy,

There is a case to be made the the Gulf Spill is the exception that proves the rule.  Let's begin with some facts.  There has been offshore drilling in the Gulf for some decades; literally thousands of wells have been drilled and plugged.  The BP Macondo incident was the first and, thus far thank God, only large uncontrolled release of oil into the Gulf.  Now, you can argue that the regulations (the oil & gas industry certainly does NOT suffer from a lack of regulation; the enforcement of those regulations are another matter) have actually worked AND caused the problem.  That is to say, the regulations of drilling closer to shore (which is safer and less risky) have driven the industry further out into the Gulf.  The curious thing about folks calling for greater government regulation of pretty much anything and everything moving or breathing today is that they then turn around and blame the government when things go wrong.  So, for example, on the one hand, environmentalists are calling for increased offshore regulations, but on the other, are questioning the government's own reports suggesting that the majority of the oil released has been absorbed by the Gulf (thus, interestingly, proving Rush Limbaugh correct, not that anyone in the mainstream media is rushing to set the record straight).  So, excuse me if I find the inconsistency on the part of liberals somewhat unconvincing with respect to economic regulation.

The same case can be made with respect to the Cordoba Center controversy.  You have liberals calling for the project to go forward on the basis of "religious liberty", but they then turn around and argue that groups that "exclude" or "discriminate" on the basis of their religious belief should be excluded from public access, e.g. the Boy Scouts, the Christian Legal Society, etc.  Curious.
7 years 5 months ago
These same liberal defenders of religious liberty advocate for "bubble ordinances" in front of abortion centers.  Seems that they think you can pray so long is it is not too close to a sensitive area that might offend someone.
7 years 5 months ago
Thanks Jeff,
I stand corrected.
Benjamin Alexander
7 years 5 months ago
It's nice to see some props for a libertarian organization like IJ on this site after your former blogger, Michael Sean Winters, did everything he could to stigmatize and slander people of this political tendency.
I think IJ does great work, and it's good to see Catholics recognizing it, too. 
7 years 5 months ago
My my ironic.  Since the beginning of Obama's inauguration this site has objected to "free enterprise" and offered a full-throated endorsement of every Obama regulation in the market, and those opposed to increased regulations have been portrayed as greedy, callous or worse.  NOW, all of a sudden, regulations are wrong and free enterprise should be let loose!!!!  What do you think the consquence of regulation is if not to increase the power of one group over another; the monks are in the position of many small businesses who face hurdles to free competition.  Perhaps you should do a story on them as well.

I guess this proves the old saying "even a blide squirel finds a nut every now and again".
7 years 5 months ago
Mr. Reidy,
I live in Louisiana; there is no "abuse" of the state regulations.  The regulations are being enforced as they are written on the books and as passed by the duly-elected state legislature.  So, to be clear, their is no "abuse" going on here; it is pure enforcement.  That it is being enforced against a sympathetic group doesn't change that. 

The objection of many of us who lean conservatives is precisely that the enforcement of regulations like this more often than not have these same sorts of consquences, its just that liberals (who are overly-represented on this blog and have been calling for greater regulation) downplay or ignore the "cost" of regulation on small businesses like the monks & have attacked others as being greedy or callous.  On top of this, there was a former blogger on this site who openly stated that Catholics could not be libertarians.  So yes, I celebrate the "common ground" found; I just hope that calling attention to a slight discrepancy causes some to re-think their position as it applies to less appealing groups than the Benedictines.

(I'm just waiting for Michael Bindner's post stating that, while lamentable, the monks should have to comply with the regulation.)
7 years 5 months ago
It is possible that the Gulf Spill was more likely to occur due to government regulations (forcing people to drill in deep water).  The oil industry is highly regulated and yet the spill still occurred.  Oh but what we really need is good politicians to make better regulations.  Ah I see the light.
Benjamin Alexander
7 years 5 months ago
Not just Hayek, but the founders of Public Choice economics will be helpful on this score. Check out Buchanan and Tullock's 1962 masterpiece, The Calculus of Consent.
Or, to see why regulations don't work as planned and why they protect sometimes evil interests, see Bruce Yandle's work on Bootleggers and Baptists.
But Tim,
To your very good concern: it's a just a matter of fact that on this blog, many people of good will who have real, empirical and/or principled reasons for not trusting government to solve every problem have been treated (especially by MSW) as if they are callously indifferent to Catholic social teaching and to the suffering of others. It was nice to have a post that showed differently.
7 years 5 months ago
"Seems that they think you can pray so long is it is not too close to a sensitive area that might offend someone."

- Mr. Kash, I think you meant to say with respect to liberals that "you can pray so long as it is not too close to a sensiteive area  that might offend them."
7 years 5 months ago
Man oh man, but I do love the one holy, Catholic and apostolic church...
7 years 5 months ago
From Abbot Justin Brown (
''We have not taken this step lightly, but it is one of our Constitution’s many great virtues that it protects economic liberty so that everyone - even monks - can earn an honest living through the labor of their own hands.''

There are some who believe that the problem is not government and government regulations but that we have bad people in government.  There are others who believe that when you concentrate power in government you will attract bad people who crave power.  History shows that power attracts bad people or corrupts good people.

I agree with Abbot Brown.  We should fight for economic liberty!  Without economic liberty we eventually lose political and regilous liberty.   Read F.A Hayek's Road to Serfdom from 1944 for a great analysis of this issue.


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