(RNS) Louisiana Monks Win Right to Build, Sell Caskets

A federal judge on Thursday (July 21) said a state law that limits the sale of caskets to licensed funeral directors and establishments is unconstitutional.
The ruling came in a case brought by the monks at St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, La., who alleged the law amounted to unconstitutional economic protectionism for the funeral industry.

The abbey opened a woodshop in 2007 to sell handcrafted cypress caskets for $1,500 to $2,000, which is cheaper than some caskets from a typical funeral home. The abbey hoped the sales would finance medical and educational needs for more than 30 monks. The state Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors issued a cease-and-desist letter before the abbey could sell a single casket. The abbey defied those demands and began selling the caskets anyway.

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Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Religion News & Commentary, Law & Legal Issues, Other Churches, Religion & Culture, Roman Catholic

15 comments on “(RNS) Louisiana Monks Win Right to Build, Sell Caskets

  1. carl says:

    I remember a sermon once where the Pastor announced his opinion on the morality of cremation. “It cheap!” he said. I wanted to stand up and applaud. Exactly so. Why do people need expensive coffins? Is there some purpose to preserving a body from decomposition? Do we wish to pretend that we are not really dead? I think we imagine that we continue to exist so long as that body remains intact and in something like its original form. The reality of “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return” creates an unease of transience – as in “Did we really exist if nothing remains but dust?”

    As for me, I want a cheap box and a fire. I would rather spend money on the headstone, for that is the last means by which I may communicate to the living. As for the rest, I will have no need of it. Such as I require will be restored to me. For thousands of years men have died and returned to dust. A few rich cultures have carefully preserved bodies for no apparent reason whatsoever other than pride. But if dust was good enough for Abraham, then dust is good enough for me.


  2. Jeremy Bonner says:

    My father – still going strong at 85 – has more than once expressed a preference for a Viking-style funeral on a burning longboat. Not sure that the Northumbrian saints about whom he has written so extensively would have approved, but I see his point.

  3. MotherViolet says:

    I wonder if the TEC policy of descrimination against Anglican congregations by making them disaffiliate from ACNA is also illegal? From a business perspective if not freedom of speach?

  4. Bookworm(God keep Snarkster) says:

    Carl, I like the way you think. I’ve heard these songs for years from either clergy family members or others working in the funeral business.

    One of the latter was telling stories on the phone one day and said he couldn’t understand the priorities of some families. He had just worked a wealthy funeral where the casket alone cost $35,000. This, of course, provoked the observation of “I don’t get it. The guy was just as dead as the guy last week that we buried in the pine box”.

    I have told my spouse too that I want cremation and the bare minimum spent. Money like that should be for our children’s use and/or given to the Humane Society. He’s in agreement, but I’ve also told him that if he ever decides to violate those wishes, I’m hounding him from the grave. 🙂

    Good for the monks…

  5. Alta Californian says:

    Carl, Kendall wrote a great article on the subject several years ago. I can’t seem to find it, as the archives from the the old blog seem defunct. I’d love it if he reposted it somewhere, as I would love to print and distribute it to people considering this question.

    As I remember, his point was essentially that the symbolism is important. In the traditional practice our bodies rest in the grave (the Hebrew concept of she’oel is critical here), awaiting the resurrection of all flesh, when our bodies will be transformed and renewed. Yes, the flesh decays over time and returns to the dust, just as the scriptures say. And no, we don’t know the mechanism for or necessarily agree on the exact theology of the general resurrection, but the imagery remains, of rest and hope. Cremation puts us into the fire and burns us to cinders, a terrible imagery of choosing the fire of hell for ourselves. Burial is about hope, our hope of the Kingdom of God. Over the top expense is out of line, and the symbolism is not so important as to be a Christian requirement (as even Rome has now said), but if the practices of Christian hope are important to us then we should strongly consider traditional burial.

    Mind you, I for one prefer burial in part because I love cemeteries. As a historian it is fascinating to examine burial places, consider family histories, and to have a location for remembrance and observance. As a Christian I also value them as they serve as continual reminders to me of the Communion of Saints, of my own mortality, and of the hope of the Resurrection. I’ve never found them creepy or unsettling, but rather as holy places of remembrance and peace.

    Personally, I applaud the monks for making traditional practice that much more affordable and accessible.

  6. The_Elves says:

    #5, here’s the link to Kendall’s old piece on cremation:


    Since the text is fairly short, I’ll post it in full here:

    [blockquote]– Some Thoughts on Cremation

    From an internet discussion list–KSH

    I have to confess surprise and disappointment in the discussion about cremation for the most part, which I am glad has been raised. As someone who speaks in churches on eschatology, it is a subject which I raise with some regularity, and it often produces some of the largest response.

    At a MINIMUM my plea, to follow Paul in Romans, is for each person to make up his or her own mind. In other words, think it through. What I regularly find with contemporary Christians is that they have no problem with cremation, but when I raise objections they cannot answer them.

    The person who raised this question has formulated the question exactly backwards. The question should be why should Christians do anything other than bodily burial?

    I wish to press this question by noting that it can be shown that as secularization increases, cremation increases. This ought at least to giveus pause.

    Bodily Burial should be preferred for at least three reasons:

    (1) Only bodily burial allows for honest grief. This is the least important reason, but it matters a lot in our culture which for the most part STILL lives into Eernest Becker’s book title THE DENIAL OF DEATH. in such a culture, it is all the more important to enable people honestly to face up to the reality of death. the whole practice of the “death industry” is in the other direction. Think about it. A coffin looks like a person–the same size, etc. When it is lifted it FEELS like a person, and the weightiness suggest the weight of
    the gift of life God gave. When it is lowered into the ground it feels like we are burying a person-same weight, height, etc. Cremation takes us away from these things–an urn is not the same size or weight, etc. Also, the whole symbolism of the pall as the resurrection body is altogether lost without a coffin.

    (2) The whole symbolism of cremation is exactly backwards. Christians believe in bodily resurrection. They should therefore respect the body in every possible way–how does cremation achieve this? The images for hell are: destruction, punishment, and exclusion. Fire is a key element of the scriptural teaching (there is no evidence, by the way, for Gehenna as a garbage dump, as is continually alleged in the literature and was said earlier). If you say a prayer over a body in an English Crematorium as my
    doctoral supervisor Geoffrey Rowell did, you actually look into the fire as the body is disposed of. LOOKING INTO THE FIRE? What kind of symbol for resurrection is that?

    In contrast, in bodily burial, we look to the Lord, we look to the future, and we confess our faith in God who will make a new heaven and a new earth.

    (3) The whole structure of Christian theology ought to give us pause here.

    Creation-fall-redemption-glorification is a profoundly earth-affirming and bodily faith structure. We were made of the earth and given bodies in creation, Christ took on full bodiedness in the incarnation and was fully bodily resurrected, and we await one day our new and glorified bodies. Another person in this discussion was correct to bring in the resurrection of the body as an element, but there is more: the whole sacramental approach to life and faith is in view. Bodily Burial is an affirmation of our bodily creation, an affirmation of our bodily redemption, and a proper anticipation of our bodily glorification.

    By the way, does anyone have a guess as to why most americans choose cremation? I find it often comes down to money. Cremation is usually less expensive. This speaks volumes about our culture. We are not to be conformed to the spirit of this world. Apart from
    compelling reasons to the contrary, why should we depart from the norm of Christian practice through the centuries? The ball is in the court of those who wish to defend cremation, not the other way around.[/blockquote]

    *SOME* of the material from Kendall’s old blog can be found via the Wayback Machine Internet archives, but it’s a bit of a tricky process. You can not search by subject or key word. You more or less need to know what you’re looking for – either have an old link, or know the rough date, or know what category it was posted in.

    The wayback archive main page for the old blog is here:


  7. Hakkatan says:

    I used to want a Viking-style funeral – but I think one would have a hard time getting away with it legally.

    I see nothing wrong with cremation, theologically. – but not for me; I want to be dust, not ashes.

    It is possible to get decent wood caskets for about $2K; there is also the expense of a vault (required by law in most places so decaying bodies do not contaminate groundwater) and opening and closing the grave – so a regular burial will run at least $4k more than a cremation (which still has costs, for a cardboard cremation casket and the crematorium fee).

    I would like to have the traditional six-sieded flat casket, but while I can find flat caskets, I have not seen a six-sided one.

  8. NoVA Scout says:

    Interesting comments on cremation, but the post is about these vexing artifacts of another era, ridiculous state laws intended to benefit narrow interest groups by limiting commerce.

  9. Firinnteine says:

    I say, good for the monks!

    There was a really interesting colloquium in Touchstone magazine a few years ago which also addressed the cremation-vs.-burial question. Although I would not condemn cremation for Christians, I do think burial is far preferable for symbolic (theological) as well as human (pastoral) reasons. Appreciate Kendall pointing out the grief aspect, which I had not really considered before.

    Buy me the cheapest box that is legal, and put my body in the ground.

    See y’all at the resurrection!

  10. Charles52 says:

    I spent a few days at St. Joseph’s, Covington, a few years ago, and it’s a beautiful place with incredible Beuronese murals. Their Pennies for Bread program is particularly admirable. Walker Percy was an oblate of the community and is buried in the cemetary.

    All of which is not the point of this comment: the best burials in the world are those of the Trappists. The deceased is carried into the Church and attended by his brothers constantly until the funeral Mass, after which the voluminous cowl (usually the one in which he was consecrated a monk at his solemn vows, is gathered to cover the monks head, face, and limbs, and he is lowered into the open grave with no casket at all. I was privileged to be at one of these joy-filled affairs in Georgia and will never forget it.

  11. Teatime2 says:

    I don’t want my dead, made-up body put on display and I don’t want it buried. My son knows this and agrees. Cremate me, put my remains in a lovely urn, have the urn and a nice picture of me in the church for my funeral service and then install me in the church columbarium, where my remains will be surrounded by prayers and hymns. That’s fitting and dignified, IMO.

    I don’t see the flames of cremation as some sort of reference to hell. I think of it as purification and reminiscent of the transformative tongues of flame that accompanied the Holy Spirit. But no one should press me to use my poor, weak, lifeless body as some sort of example of Biblical metaphors — my life was a struggle with physical disability and its focus was on spiritual, mental and emotional strength, instead. I don’t want the focus being on the body that so frequently betrayed me — I want the emphasis to be on my spirit that kept me alive and then went on to live with God.

    Moreover, I don’t want my loved ones’ last view of me being a corpse in a casket. I absolutely hate that my last mental picture of my parents is such. When my son saw his grandmother’s body, he began to sob loudly, “That thing is not my grandma!” Horrible, and one I would never put him through again.

    Above all, Christians should have the choice and it should be honored and respected. Final arrangements are very personal, culturally bound and sensitive matters.

  12. Bookworm(God keep Snarkster) says:

    My “defense” of cremation won’t be that of a PhD theologian; but, oh, well.

    “Only bodily burial allows for honest grief”.

    One of my maternity nurses became a family friend after I delivered my second child. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37(whilst she was trying to have a third child; she had to abandon that dream) and had been struggling with it for 10 years. It eventually killed her at age 48. The doctors just could not stop its onslaught and it became bone mets, then organ mets and got her. She was cremated and we attended her Roman Catholic service and “burial”. I watched as her earthly remains were lowered into the ground, and I don’t believe that the grief of her spouse and two shell-shocked teenage children was any less “honest”.

    Jesus was raised after three days–and, while I don’t doubt Him, God is going to have a serious challenge with some “transformations”.

    Thus, even if it’s not buttressed by an Oxford education, I also don’t see cremation as a reference to hell.

    “We are not to be conformed to the spirit of this world”.

    Tell that to all the people I’ve either heard of or seen funeral planning and crying in despair because of all the services they wanted and could not afford. Burials have to be pretty quick, too, or the funeral home will also have to embalm and charge you $1500-2000.00 for that as well.

    I don’t necessarily dislike the Trappist way of doing things, but most average families are not going to do it that way, and bury Dad out in the backyard with no contact with the funeral business.

    And I don’t want to think about how many children I have seen accidentally traumatized because they were brought to a wake or funeral with an open casket that the parents didn’t know about beforehand, even if the parents had made effort to ask.

    No, I don’t think the cremation route is “hell” at all. And, true, OT rather than NT but God Himself has appeared as fire.

  13. Alta Californian says:

    Thanks, Elves, I will save this for future reference. I had indeed tried to find it by search.

    I should add that the proliferation of church columbaria does make that a tempting offer. Some of places I find the most sacred, including our own church sanctuary, have them. Likewise I love the natural world as much as any Christian ought to, and to be scattered in my beloved Sierra Nevada or at my favorite beach on the North Coast would not seem so bad. But my Christian hope matters most to me, and I would hope my family would support that. So, I’m with Firinnteine at #9.

  14. Bookworm(God keep Snarkster) says:

    I for one don’t believe that the Christians, e.g., who died on 9/11 in terrorist attacks that left victims vaporized are devoid of their “Christian hope” because the body is nowhere to be found.

    I am a Christian who believes in a Bodily Resurrection, but let’s say for the sake of argument that the Second Coming happens in another 1000 years. What’s in the graves won’t have to be “transformed” any less than cremains.