The legal fight between the coffin-making monks of St. Joseph Abbey and Louisiana's powerful funeral industry looks like a classic mismatch.
In one corner – representing the interests of the state's roughly 400 funeral homes – is the industry-dominated funeral regulatory board.
In the other are the 35 Benedictine monks at the 121-year-old monastery, where a handful of members started making simple wood coffins after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the pine forest they had relied on for timber and income. The timber sales had helped pay for the medical and educational needs of the monks.
"When the monks first came to visit I said this sounds like … David versus Goliath," said Jeff Rowes, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest firm representing the monks in a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month.The lawsuit claims the funeral establishment licensing laws are meant to preserve a "casket cartel" within Louisiana.
The board regulating Louisiana's embalmers and funeral directors is enforcing a state law that makes it a crime for anyone but a licensed establishment to sell "funeral merchandise." Now the coffin-making Benedictines face thousands of dollars in fines and up to 180 days in prison.
"It would be crazy but crazier things have happened in Louisiana," Abbot Justin Brown said of the prospect of jail time.
The dispute dates back to All Saints Day in November 2007, when the cash-strapped monastery officially launched St. Joseph Woodworks out of an old cafeteria. They publicly offered simple wood caskets once made exclusively for members of the religious order.
Carved from cypress grown on the monastery's 1,100-acre property, the caskets are lined with white cloth. The pillows are made by the priest who sews the monks' habits. A deacon blesses each casket before delivery. So far, roughly 70 have been sold, mostly via word-of-mouth and the abbey's website.
The two types of caskets, which Brown described as "simple and simpler," are priced at $1,500 and $2,000. The average cost of a casket elsewhere is about $2,300 though some are priced between $4,000 and $10,000.
But before the monks sold a single casket, the state funeral regulatory board hit them with a cease-and-desist order. They quietly continued their sales while consulting their attorneys and seeking an exemption to the law.
The monastery tried unsuccessfully to get the state legislature to broaden the law governing casket sales. Negotiations with the state funeral regulatory board also fell through, with funeral home directors offering to sell the monastery's coffins at a small markup.
"They're seeing an opportunity to make some money," said Leonard Dunn, owner of Serenity Funeral Home in Covington, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain outside of New Orleans. "We told them, 'We'd be glad to represent you and put your caskets in our selection rooms and sell them for you for a very small amount of money."
The monks refused, arguing that state residents were able to purchase caskets from manufacturers over the Internet.
"I don't know how we can cut into their profits since in three years we've sold maybe 60 or so coffins," Brown said. "To date, we really haven't made any money. We'll still paying for the roughly $70,000 we spent on equipment."
Michael Rasch, an attorney representing the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, said the issue was not how many caskets the monks had sold.
"The issue is that the law of the state of Louisiana specifically provides that funeral merchandize, which includes caskets, can only be sold by a licensed funeral director," he said.
In the federal lawsuit, the monastery argues that the state law violates the monks' right to earn an honest living.
"The Louisiana law prevents the monks from selling caskets not because there's a legitimate government reason but to protect a private industry group from competition," Rowes said.
The nine-member funeral regulatory board has eight members who are funeral industry professionals. Rowes said similar regulatory boards throughout the nation are being utilized in the interests of private profit and to the detriment of working people.
"What's happening to the monks is happening to entrepreneurs across the country in hundreds of different licensed occupations," he said. "Until recently, for example, you needed a license to be a florist in Louisiana. You need a license in a number of places to braid hair. Every state is filled with licensing restrictions that don't do anything but serve private industry purposes."
Dunn responded: "We're regulated to protect the public, the consumer. If the monks were to get the OK to go ahead and manufacture caskets, it may be opening the doors for people to come in and manufacture caskets that really aren't qualified."
In a state with about 40,000 annual deaths, Brown said, St. Joseph Woodworks represents a tiny slice of the funeral market.
"We realize we don't have a big market," he said. "We only make two types of caskets: simple and simpler. And they're wood and very simple but I think they speak to people who identify with the monastic ideal of noble simplicity and craftsmanship."