Louisiana Monks Can Keep Making Caskets


     NEW ORLEANS (CN) - An order of monks can sell handmade caskets without a Louisiana funeral home license, a federal judge ruled.
     The monks of St. Joseph, a Catholic monastery of 38 monks located in Covington, La., filed a declaratory-relief complaint in August, saying they do need Louisiana State funeral board licensing to continue producing the wooden caskets they have made and sold for generations. The caskets range in price from $1,500 to $2,000.
     Enforcement of funeral-director licensing might be relevant to the monks if it pertained to public health and safety, U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. found.
     But said "no evidence was presented to demonstrate that requiring the purchase of caskets from licensed funeral directors aids the public welfare," he added. If someone wants to bury a body, they will buy a casket and then hire a funeral director.
     "There is no rational basis for the state of Louisiana to require persons who seek to enter into the retailing of caskets to undergo the training and expense necessary to comply with" rules required of funeral directors," Duval wrote.
     Court documents say that "for generations, the monks have constructed simple wooden caskets to bury their dead. ... After two bishops utilized these simple coffins, public interest in the coffins grew. That factor combined with the loss of the Abby's timberlands as a result of Hurricane Katrina (which timberlands it harvested for income) led Abbot Justin Brown to believe that the construction and sale of caskets would be a good source of revenue for the Abby." (Parenthesis in original)
     Other than casket-making, the monastery does not arrange funerals or participate in funerals other than in a pastoral role, and it does not handle human remains, the document says.
     According to existing Louisiana law, only licensed funeral directors are allowed to sell caskets. The maximum penalty for an unlicensed casket sale is a $2,500 fine and 180 days in jail.
     In December 2007, the State Board of Licensed Funeral Directors threatened the monks with the penalties if they continued to make caskets.
     To become a licensed funeral director, a person has to have either a high school diploma or a GED, and 30 hours of college credit.
     "None of the 30 hours need pertain to funeral directing, grief counseling or caskets," Duval wrote, adding "nor is there any requirement that the apprentice learn about caskets or grief counseling."
     Under existing Louisiana law, "for the abbey to sell caskets it would have to become a licensed funeral establishment," the decision stats. "This course of action would require a layout parlor for 30 people, a display room for six caskets, an arrangement room and signage. ... The abbey would also have to employ a full-time, state-licensed funeral director. ... In addition, the abbey would have to install 'embalming facilities for the sanitation, disinfection and preparation of a human body."
     Consumers can buy caskets online, including from Wal-Mart and Amazon.com. "This fact is salient in that Louisianans can indeed purchase from these out of state retailers who are not subject to the act," Duval wrote. "Indeed ... the EFD Board has not issued any other cease and desist orders to out-of-state casket retailers in the last ten years."
     A body can be buried in any sort of container, and there are no requirements for the construction of caskets, not even that a casket must be sealed, the court found. Furthermore, people may use their own homemade caskets to bury their dead. "Finally, it is uncontroverted that Louisiana is the only state in the union that continues to enforce" the law that requires casket makers to be funeral board certified, Duval continued.
     "The reality of the process is that if a deceased person is being buried in a cemetery, a funeral director will be involved (and will be charging for his or her services)," he wrote (parentheses in original). "Any concerns about the appropriateness of the casket can and will be addressed at that juncture. The availability of casket retailers will not prevent funeral directors from continuing to dispense advice about size needs, odor concerns and the like."
     "The portion of the act that speaks to health and safety concerns are those with respect to training and facilities used for the embalming and handling of bodies," he added. "Clearly, a person or company selling a receptacle will not be engaging in those activities and there is no need for such training for them."