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.