On the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

Father Justin Brown and the coffin-making monks


Is the state of Louisiana protecting the public? Or the funeral industry?

On Monday, wearing his monk’s robe, Abbot Justin Brown of St. Joseph’s monastery near Covington, Louisiana, told U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duvan that his monks only want to make affordable coffins for the cash-strapped public. He said the only people who ever have opposed the abbey’s efforts to provide affordable, handmade caskets are funeral insiders who stand to lose their statewide monopoly — and thousands of dollars in profit.

“To my knowledge, no one objected besides them,” Brown told the judge.

The Benedictine monks have tried and failed to convince Louisiana legislators to amend a state statute that prohibits casket sales by non-licensed funeral directors.

“Monday’s federal trial,” reports the Religious News Service, “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.”

Pallbearers carry out one of the monks' plain cypress caskets

The monks’ unpaid attorneys argued that the law amounts to unconstitutional economic protectionism.

St. Joseph’s opened a woodshop in 2007 to sell handcrafted cypress caskets for $1,500 to $2,000, which is far cheaper than many 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 — and hired a detective who caught the abbots in the act. He took pictures of them loading a coffin into a pickup truck.

“You simply want to sell caskets, is that correct?” the abbey’s attorney Scott Bullock asked the monastery’s woodshop director, monk Mark Coudrain, at one point.

“That is correct,” Coudrain replied.

The funeral directors say they are in the best position to help customers select appropriate caskets because they are trained to consider issues such as the deceased’s body size and burial site.

Billy Henry, the general manager of Tharp-Sontheimer funeral home in Metairie, Louisiana, said grieving customers who deal with licensed professionals don’t have to face the possibility of a casket that’s too small — which can delay a funeral unnecessarily.

Monks inspect a finished coffin

However, some local morticians are mortified by all the fuss, according to the Wall Street Journal. Darin Bordelon, the owner of LaVille Funeral Home in Ville Platte, Louisiana, says the state board should be ashamed of its campaign against the monks.

“They’re making us all look greedy,” he told the Journal.

The judge asked both sides to file legal 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.

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