Benedictine Monks Sue Louisiana Over Right to Sell Caskets

NEW ORLEANS -- An order of Benedictine monks wants to sell simple cypress caskets to help make ends meet, but the monks say the funeral industry is thwarting their efforts.

The monks of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Tammany Parish sued Louisiana regulators Thursday, charging the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is attempting to maintain a casket cartel through regulation dominated by the funeral industry.

The regulators told the monks not to sell the caskets because they are not licensed funeral directors.

The 36 monks of the 121-year-old abbey decided a few years ago to sell caskets with simple white cloth interiors for $1,500 to $2,000 to support the abbey, which does not receive funding from the Roman Catholic Church.

About 50 to 60 of the caskets were sold, beginning in 2007, before the funeral board, acting on a complaint filed by a funeral home, subpoenaed the order in March and threatened fines, said lawyer Jeff Rowes of the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice. The monks tried to get an exemption from the regulations in 2008 and 2010, but legislators rejected the requests.

Rowes said there is no justification for a state "to regulate the sale of wooden boxes."

"The only reason they are enforcing it is to protect the profits of a powerful industry," Rowes said.

The board consists of four embalmers, four funeral directors and a citizen member at least 60 years old. The monks have been told they need funeral director licenses, and their abbey has to be licensed as a funeral home since they offer free storage for purchased caskets.

Michael Rasch, a board attorney, said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. But he said: "The board is simply enforcing the law that's passed by the Louisiana Legislature."

Getting a funeral director's license is no small task. State law requires at 30 semester hours of college and a one-year apprenticeship during which the candidate must preside over at least 25 funerals. A funeral home license requires embalming by a licensed embalmer. The abbey does not intend to offer that service, Rowes said.

Abbot Justin Brown said making and selling caskets is in keeping with a 1,500-year tradition of self-support. "For centuries, Benedictine monks have been entrepreneurs," he said.

The monks of St. Joseph Abbey for years farmed and harvested wood, a business that sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Brown said. The caskets drew public attention at funerals for monks and two Louisiana bishops, leading to requests to purchase them. In 2007, the monks converted part of the abbey into a woodworking shop. Three monks usually work on the caskets.

"All we want to do is sell these simple wood caskets to our friends and the public," Brown said.

Rowes said he expects the dispute eventually will go to the U.S. Supreme Court. Federal circuit courts of appeal already have disagreed on similar laws in other states.

Louisiana law applies only to caskets sold by retailers physically located in the state.

The lawsuit points out that do-it-yourself casket plans are available on the Internet and independent casket retailers offer discounts. Wal-Mart began selling caskets on the Internet in 2009.

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