Casket-Selling Monks Unravel Louisiana Law | Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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Casket-Selling Monks Unravel Louisiana Law

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The Louisiana funeral board cannot keep a Catholic monastery from manufacturing and selling handmade wooden caskets, the 5th Circuit ruled.

St. Joseph Abbey and the deacon of Benedictine monastery, Mark Coudrain, had filed suit in 2010 after the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors allegedly threatened its monks with criminal charges, fines and up to 180 days in jail unless they stopped selling wooden caskets.

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.

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 said the abbey is not wealthy and receives no support from the Catholic Church. In addition to farming and timber harvesting, the monks at St. Joseph Abbey allegedly spent generations making simple wooden caskets for their brethren.

Public interest in the caskets increased after two bishops were buried in Abbey caskets in the 1990s, and the monks focused on casket-making as business after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their timber in 2005.

Louisiana law, however, limits the sale of caskets to licensed funeral directors. The abbey is not a licensed funeral home and none of its 38 monks or employees is a licensed funeral director.

The case went to the 5th Circuit after U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval sided with the monks in 2011.

"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.

In October 2012, the 5th Circuit sought clarification from the Louisiana Supreme Court as to whether the funeral board has the regulatory power to ban casket sales from third-party makers.

The federal appeals panel noted last week, however, that they never got an answer to that question.

"The Louisiana Supreme Court denied certification without explanation," Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote for a three-member panel. "Ours cannot be the final word on uncertainty in state law. The parties do not challenge the board's authority here, and the state has declined our request to clarify this statute's meaning."

Turning to the issues at hand, the panel found the Louisiana law unconstitutional and quoted liberally from his last opinion on the matter.

"The funeral directors have offered no rational basis for their challenged rule and, try as we are required to do, we can suppose none," Higginbotham wrote.

Other than casket-making, the monastery does not arrange funerals nor handle human remains. It limits its participation in funerals to a pastoral role.

Compliance with Louisiana regulations, however, would require the monks to build a layout parlor for 30 people, a display room for six caskets, an arrangement room, and embalming facilities, among many other guidelines.

The panel rejected these standards, using the same analysis from the 2012 certification order.

"Whatever special expertise a funeral director may have in casket selection is irrelevant to it being the sole seller of caskets," Higginbotham wrote. "This is because customers pay funeral directors a nondeclinable service fee, which contractually binds a funeral director to assist the customer with funeral and burial logistics, including, for example, casket selection, even if the customer does not purchase the casket from the funeral director. ... A customer of a funeral home receives the same service whether or not he purchases the casket from the funeral home, and because only funeral homes can sell funeral services, and all disposing of dead bodies must be 'through a funeral establishment,' he must engage their service."

Higginbotham also noted "a disconnect between restricting casket sales to funeral homes and preventing consumer fraud and abuse."

"The grant of an exclusive right of sale adds nothing to protect consumers and puts them at a greater risk of abuse including exploitative prices," he added.

Additionally, "we find that no rational relationship exists between public health and safety and restricting intrastate casket sales to funeral directors," Higginbotham wrote.

"That Louisiana does not even require a casket for burial, does not impose requirements for their construction or design, does not require a casket to be sealed before burial, and does not require funeral directors to have any special expertise in caskets leads us to conclude that no rational relationship exists between public health and safety and limiting intrastate sales of caskets to funeral establishments," the document states.

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