Judge hears monks' suit over right to build caskets

June 7, 2011

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Wearing a monk's robe, Abbot Justin Brown climbed into
the witness box on Monday (June 6) and said the only people who ever
opposed his abbey's bid to sell handmade caskets were funeral insiders
who stood to lose their statewide monopoly.

"To my knowledge, no one objected besides (them)," he told U.S.
District Judge Stanwood Duval.

Brown and the monks at St. Joseph's Abbey near Covington, La., have
tried and failed to convince Louisiana legislators to amend a state
statute that prohibits casket sales by nonlicensed funeral directors.

Monday's federal trial served as a challenge to that law, which
imposes thousands of dollars in fines, and up to 180 days in prison, for
anyone who sells coffins without first paying fees and obtaining a
license from the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.
The proceedings concluded after about three hours of arguments. The
Benedictine monks' legal team, from the Virginia-based Institute for
Justice, argued that the statute amounted to unconstitutional economic

Duval has asked both sides to file briefs by June 24, with a
response from both sides by July 1. Some time after that, the judge will
either strike down or uphold the law, according to Jeff Rowes, the
justice institute's senior attorney.

St. Joseph Abbey opened a woodshop in 2007 to sell handcrafted
cypress caskets for $1,500 to $2,000, which is cheaper than some caskets
from a typical funeral home. They hoped the sales would finance medical
and educational needs for more than 30 monks.

The state Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors issued a
cease-and-desist letter before the abbey could sell a single casket. The
abbey, led by Brown and woodshop director Deacon Mark Coudrain, defied
those demands and began selling the caskets anyway.

Last August, the abbey filed suit. On Monday, Brown and Coudrain
testified that they do not aspire to function as a funeral home by
offering funeral services or embalming remains.

"You simply want to sell caskets, is that correct?" the monks'
attorney Scott Bullock asked Coudrain at one point. "That is correct,"
Coudrain replied.

Attorney Preston L. Hayes, who represents the regulators, said
licensed funeral directors are in the best position to help customers
select appropriate caskets because they are trained to consider issues
no one else is, such as the deceased's body size and burial site.

Dawn Scardino, the director of the state funeral board, testified
that granting the monks' request would complicate a separate law that
makes it illegal for third parties to sell caskets to people who don't
need one immediately.

Billy Henry, the general manager of Tharp-Sontheimer funeral home in
Metairie, La., said grieving customers who deal with licensed
professionals don't have to face the possibility of a casket that's too
small or doesn't contain the odors or fluids produced by decomposition.

Each of those "sensitive" scenarios can delay funeral services, and
"I think (that's) pretty traumatic," Henry said.