Can't a Monk Sell a Casket?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on June 08, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Hurricane Katrina didn't just destroy people's homes; it destroyed their livelihood.

Before the epic 2005 storm, the St. Joseph Abbey monks in Covington, La. paid for their living costs through timber from a pine forest on the abbey's property, reports Businessweek. When the storm destroyed the forest, the monks began selling caskets. It turns out that they were breaking the law.

Thursday, the monks argued to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that a Louisiana law allowing only licensed funeral establishments to sell caskets is unconstitutional.

Let's back up a moment, and discuss the people who would target monks: the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.

Under Louisiana's Embalming and Funeral Directors Act, it is illegal for anyone to conduct the business of funeral directing or to engage in the business of funeral directing without first getting licensed as a licensed funeral establishment. The "business of funeral directing" includes casket sales.

When the monks started producing their caskets commercially in 2007, the Board sent the abbey a cease-and-desist letter, threatening them with prison and thousands of dollars in fines, reports KATC.

The St. Joseph Abbey monks sued the funeral board. Last year, District Judge Stanwood Duvall ruled that the license requirement violated the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In the opinion, Judge Duvall wrote, "There is no rational basis for the State of Louisiana to require persons who seek to enter into the retailing of caskets to undergo the training and expense necessary to comply with these rules. Simply put there is nothing in the licensing procedures that bestows any benefit to the public in the context of the retail sale of caskets. The license has no bearing on the manufacturing and sale of coffins. It appears that the sole reason for these laws is the economic protection of the funeral industry which reason the Court has previously found not to be a valid government interest standing alone to provide a constitutionally valid reason for these provisions."

Thursday, the Board and the monks argued the case again before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Board argued that the state's licensing scheme wasn't designed to create a monopoly, but to shield grieving people from "the trauma" of buying coffins that don't fit the area's burial spaces, reports the Times-Picayune.

Granted, New Orleans has some unusual cemeteries, but this isn't exactly a square-peg-in-a-round-hole problem. It seems like the funeral homes could work with the monks to prevent such "traumas."

Our money's on the monks in this Fifth Circuit appeal. Do you agree, or do you think the Board has a sound argument for restricting casket sales?

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