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.