BATON ROUGE, La. — After a long legal fight, Benedictine monks in Louisiana have the right to sell their handmade wooden caskets to the public now that the U.S. Supreme Court has let a lower court ruling stand.
“It’s a great day for us, and we’re very thankful that this five-year battle is over,” Abbot Justin Brown of St. Joseph Abbey told The Advocate, Baton Rouge’s daily newspaper. “We’re not in the business of going to court.”
The Covington-based abbey had for decades created the caskets to bury deceased religious brothers. It began to sell the caskets in November 2007 through a new company, St. Joseph Woodworks, after Hurricane Katrina wiped out the timberland on which it relied for income, and the caskets were sold at a rate significantly lower than others.
One month later, the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors ordered the abbey not to sell the caskets to the public within the state. State law required sellers of caskets to have funeral-director training and to have a funeral parlor with embalming equipment.
The monks stopped selling caskets and filed suit in federal court in 2010, and a U.S. district judge struck down the law in 2011.
In March 2013, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision that the Louisiana embalmers and funeral directors board wrongly required casket sales to be conducted only through a state-licensed funeral director at a funeral home.
The court wrote that the state rule puts coffin customers at a greater risk of abuse and “exploitative prices,” striking down the protectionist law as violating the monks' rights to equal protection and due process.
The state funeral board, which argues that the law helps protect consumers, had appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which chose not to reconsider the appellate court's ruling in favor of the monks.
The abbey had celebrated its previous legal victories, but Abbot Brown said they will likely mark the final milestone “quietly in our prayers.”
St. Joseph Abbey is almost 125 years old and has 34 monks in its community. It operates a college seminary and hosts a retreat center and a bakery that provides bread for the poor of New Orleans.
To help support itself, the abbey now sells a special monastic coffin model for $1,500, while the traditional coffin sells for $2,000. It makes about 200 caskets per year.
In March, Abbot Brown said the caskets have “good craftsmanship. They’re very simple but very well done.”
The legal fight over the casket regulation drew strong support from both Catholics and non-Catholics, he said.
“It’s great that we’ve been able to secure our own economic liberty and protect the economic liberty of others,” he told The Advocate. “We always felt the Constitution was on our side.”