(RNS) A group of woodworking Louisiana monks is celebrating after a federal appeals court ruled they can sell simple handmade caskets – and local funeral directors can’t stop them.
In a Wednesday (March 20) opinion, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Benedictine monks of St. Joseph Abbey near Covington, La., have a right to sell caskets in their home state. The ruling affirmed a lower court’s judgment, which said the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors cannot restrict the market only to licensed funeral directors.
"Funeral homes, not independent sellers, have been the problem for consumers with their bundling of product and markups of caskets,” the 19-page opinion said. The “grant of an exclusive right of sale (for licensed funeral directors) adds nothing to protect consumers and puts them at a greater risk of abuse including exploitative prices.”
The monks’ victory helps them pursue the livelihood they’ve forged in the years since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina decimated timber holdings that had previously provided essential income for the abbey. It also gives Louisiana consumers access to basic cypress caskets that sell for $1,500 and $2,000 -- far below prices charged at the state’s funeral homes, according to the court opinion.
“Our prayers have been answered,” said Abbot Justin Brown, head of St. Joseph Abbey, in a written statement. “We are especially gratified that the Court’s decision will protect the economic liberty of other entrepreneurs in Louisiana and around the country.”
Neither the Louisiana Funeral Directors Association nor Michael Rasch, attorney for the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, responded immediately to requests for comment.
The Catholic monks of St. Joseph have long been buried in plain wooden caskets built by hand at the abbey. When they needed an alternate source of income after Katrina, they invested $200,000 to start Saint Joseph Woodworks. They were able to sell in other states, but the Louisiana board moved in 2007 to block them from doing business in their own state.
With this week’s ruling, the 5th Circuit parts ways with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2004 upheld a similar law restricting casket sales in Oklahoma. The issue could ultimately be decided in the U.S. Supreme Court if the board members decide to appeal.