The Case That Won't Die: Court Certifies Question in Casket Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 24, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In June, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in an appeal regarding whether the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors could stop a group of monks in Covington from making and selling caskets.

Though more than four months have passed since oral arguments, this case won’t be laid to rest quite yet. Tuesday, the appellate court asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to decide if the Board can set the state rules of casket sales.

Before Hurricane Katrina, 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 in 2005, the monks began selling handmade caskets.

The State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors opposed the Abbey's casket-selling plan, arguing that, under state law, intrastate sales of caskets to the public may be made only by a state-licensed funeral director and only at a state-licensed funeral home. Since the Abbey offers no funeral services, the Board says that the Abbey's casket sales run afoul of the law.

Louisiana law doesn't actually require a person to be buried in a casket, but the Louisiana Embalming and Funeral Directors Act makes it 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.

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."

The Board appealed.

Now, the Fifth Circuit is asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to clarify whether Louisiana law gives the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors authority to regulate casket sales by a retailer who does not provide any other funeral services

The good news for the monks is that it seems they will win either way: The Fifth Circuit panel expressed "doubt that a rational relationship exists between public health and safety and restricting intrastate casket sales to funeral directors."

The question now is whether the court will strike the law based on the Board's lack of authority or on constitutional grounds.

Even in the Supreme Court, our money's on the monks in this case. After all, what judge wants to rule against a monk and risk heading to hell in a hand(made) casket?

(Editor's Note: This post has been updated to note the panel's rational relationship reservations.)

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