NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A Benedictine monastery says the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors has threatened its monks with criminal charges, fines and up to 180 days in jail unless they stop selling wooden caskets, because state law bars the sale of funeral items without a license. The monks say “there is no rational relationship between the sale of handmade wooden caskets and a government requirement that a monastery become a funeral home.”
St. Joseph Abbey and its Deacon Mark Coudrain say the law is irrational, “arbitrary, excessive and anachronistic,” and that the monks at the abbey will be “irreparably harmed by the arbitrary requirements of having to convert the monastery into a licensed ‘funeral establishment,’ including outfitting the monastery with facilities for embalming human remains, because there is no rational relationship between the sale of handmade wooden caskets and a government requirement that a monastery become a funeral home.”
The abbey is not a licensed funeral home and none of its monks or employees is a licensed funeral director.
Coudrain is an ordained deacon of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and is director of the abbey’s Christian Life Center and Saint Joseph Woodworks, which makes monastic caskets by hand for sale to the public. He is not a licensed funeral director.
Saint Benedict, after whom the Abbey is named, instructed monastic communities to support themselves financially through the practice of common occupations. For centuries, Benedictine monks, and monks of other orders, have engaged in trades such as farming, brewing beer, and winemaking.
Coudrain says the abbey is not wealthy and receives no support from the Catholic Church. In the past, its monks farmed and harvested timber on their land.
“The monks were told by lay advisors in the 1990s that they needed a new way to support themselves, but the monks were not sure what to do,” the complaint states.
Casket-making is a simple occupation that could be performed at the monastery. But under Louisiana law, no one without certification can go into the funeral business.
Coudrain says there isn’t anything special about a casket, that a” casket is just a box for human remains. It has a top, a bottom, sides, and usually some upholstery inside.”
Some people make their own caskets or caskets for friends and loved ones and do-it-yourself casket plans are readily available on the internet, the monks say.
Coudrain adds that a casket is not even required for burial in Louisiana – or in any state in the country. A person can be buried directly in the ground or in a shroud. And, the deacon says, there is a growing environmental movement that advocates no caskets, or biodegradable caskets made of cardboard instead metal.
“As evidenced by the fact that a casket is not necessary for burial, a casket does not serve any public health and safety purpose,” the monks say.
About 40,000 people die every year in Louisiana, according to the complaint. The monks say the first formal complaint against the abbey was made in 2008 by Boyd L. Mothe Jr., vice president of Mothe Funeral Homes. (37) Based on that complaint, the state board investigated the abbey.
During the investigation, the boss of the abbey, Abbot Justin Brown, disagreed with the state board’s legal arguments and said the monks would try to change the law so they could keep making and selling caskets.
Their state representative agreed to introduce a bill amending the law to allow casket sales by non-licensed funeral directors. But funeral industry lobbyists squawked; several funeral directors showed up at the hearing to register their disapproval, and the bill died in committee.
This spring, a state senator sponsored a bill to exempt the monks, but it died too after pressure from the funeral industry.
Deacon Coudrain says he and his monks could criminally prosecuted and sent to prison for 6 months for each casket they sell without a license.
The state Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors requires, among other things, that people in the funeral business must be “found by the board to be of good moral character and temperate habits,” to have completed 30 semester hours in an accredited college or university, and to have served for at least 1 year as an apprentice, during at least 25 funerals.
The funeral director exam covers topics such as sociology, psychology, funeral directing, funeral-service law and regulations, and anything else the state board deems relevant.
Coudrain says the licensing is not rational, and points out that Louisiana doesn’t require most sellers of nonperishable goods to obtain specialized licenses.
“Nor does Louisiana require other retailers to obtain licenses that are only tangentially related to the goods being sold, as it does for caskets. For example, Louisiana does not require shoe salesmen to obtain podiatry licenses, or mattress salesmen to obtain chiropractic licenses.”
The deacon “seeks to vindicate the freedom of the Benedictine monks of Saint Joseph Abbey to sell simple wooden caskets as part of their ministry and to raise funds for their monastery.”
Coudrain seeks an injunction for violation of due process and wants the board restrained from prohibiting the monks from pursuing legitimate occupations.
The abbey is represented in Federal Court by F. Evans Schmidt of New Orleans.