How 38 Monks Took on the Funeral Cartel and Won

Their victory in federal court means they can sell caskets without a license -- and has implications for entrepreneurs all over the United States


After Hurricane Katrina, the 38 monks at Saint Joseph Abbey in Covington, Louisiana had a problem: they'd long supported themselves by harvesting trees on their woodland property, but damage done by the storm made continuing to do so impossible. If the community was going to survive as a place of communal prayer, education, and simple labor, it needed to find an acceptable new source of steady income. But what would it be?

Abbot Justin Brown thought selling caskets might be the answer. For generations, the monks had buried their dead in simple wooden boxes that they made on site. During the 1990s, two Louisiana bishops had been buried in caskets from the abbey, generating a bit of publicity, and even years later, the monks got occasional inquiries from folks who sought something similarly austere for a funeral.

Surveying the market, the monks knew that they could produce and sell caskets much cheaper than local funeral parlors, where grieving consumers paid a substantial markup, or were forced into package deals that obscured the actual price of the casket. Thus a small business was born: the monks invested $200,000, converted an old cafeteria building into a professional woodshop, and opened St. Joseph's Woodworks in 2007 on All Saints Day. Little did they know that they were about to be threatened with fines, or even jail time, unless they abandoned their plans. Or that they'd have to fight in federal court for the right to sell their simple caskets (a wooden box, a lid, and two metal handles), a case that they won Thursday when the U.S. District Court in Eastern Louisiana ruled that their constitutional rights had been violated.

If the case is appealed and reaches the Supreme Court, a real possibility according to the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm representing the monks, a suit waged on behalf of folks who hold all their possessions in common may rank among the most consequential economic freedom cases in a generation, and determine how far states and localities can go to regulate entrepreneurs in their jurisdictions.

In order to understand why, it's probably best to start back in 1914, when legislators in Baton Rouge passed a law to regulate the local death industry. Intending "to prevent the spread of infectious and contagious disease," and "to regulate the practice of embalming and the business of undertaking," they created the aptly named Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors. Over the years, it's mostly been run by industry insiders -- current board members include owners or executives from at least four different funeral homes.

Skip ahead to 2007.

In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, there's an official newspaper, The Clarion Herald. Tipped off that nearby monks were launching a casket business, its staff published a small feature. In the death industry, the news spread quickly. A start-up was encroaching on the local monopoly funeral homes had on burial boxes, which were sometimes being sold at four times the wholesale price! The monks threatened those margins. And soon, they received a warning letter from the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, informing them that they were in violation a regulation they'd never before encountered. It stated that only state-licensed funeral directors may engage in the retail sale of caskets.

Getting licensed as a funeral director is neither easy nor compatible with monastic life, as the monks would soon discover. Applicants must have a high school diploma, earn 30 hours of college credit, and apprentice full time in the industry for one year, learning how to handle and embalm dead bodies. As a requirement for building a rectangular box with a lid, affixing handles, and selling it without even seeing a dead body, that struck the monks as excessive. And even if they met those burdens, they'd have to convert their monastery into a "funeral establishment," a designation that would require a layout parlor for 30 people, a display room for six caskets, and body embalming equipment, among other things.

Had building and selling wooden boxes ever been so onerous?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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