When monks get litigious

I never get a chance to look at stories about libertarianism and religion because, frankly, there aren’t that many of them. But the Washington Post had a story that joined these two topics and it was actually really good. Good stories about libertarianism and religion are even rarer to find.

The story is about a Benedictine Abbey. Now, if you go to a basic resource on Benedictine communities, you’ll be told that the Rule of St. Benedict requires candidates to promise to remain in the same community, to live as a monk and to be obedient to the rules and to the superior in charge. Time is not to be wasted. Hours of strict silence are set. Social conversations are limited.

One thing I found interesting was how this story about these Benedictine monks didn’t match up with my impression of what they’d be like. Here’s how the story by Robert Barnes begins:

ST. BENEDICT, La. — Not very long after God told some at St. Joseph Abbey that the way out of financial hardship might be selling the monks’ handcrafted caskets, the state of Louisiana arrived with a different message.

It was a cease-and-desist order and came with threats of thousands of dollars in fines and possible criminal prosecution.

“Before we even sold a casket,” St. Joseph Abbot Justin Brown said in a recent interview in the picturesque abbey, which is located about an hour’s drive from New Orleans, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. Now a band of libertarian lawyers is hoping that the honey-colored Louisiana cypress coffins provide the vehicle for a Supreme Court review of government economic regulations.

A bit cheesy, as one submitter pointed out, but it does get you right into the tension between the religious community and the government.

The story is mostly about the Institute for Justice, the group that is fighting for the right of the abbey to sell funeral merchandise. One of the issues I personally think about as a Christian is whether it’s ever a good idea to sue. Since the abbey went to court to fight for its rights, I was pleased to see the story actually mention that it was a point of concern for them, too.

The article gives a nice little look at the philosophy of the group:

Brown, 54, never really thought of going into the casket-building business, although the abbey has built caskets for years for the monks and others in southeast Louisiana.

But the monks of St. Joseph, part of the Order of Saint Benedict, must support themselves. “Ora et labora” — “prayer and work” — is the order’s motto. Money comes from contributions, the seminary that trains priests, a retreat center and small enterprises such as a gift shop that features abbey-made Monk Soap in fragrances such as Mayan Gold.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed some of their profitable land, they needed a plan. Here’s the less mawkish version of the lede:

It was Deacon Mark Coudrain, a woodworking enthusiast asked by his father to build a casket for him, who approached Brown with the prospect of turning the abbey’s occasional coffin construction into a business.

“I really like to say it’s God’s idea that I didn’t want to do,” Coudrain said. Eventually, he decided, “there’s a need, the abbey’s the perfect place and God was saying, ‘You know, I taught you something, why don’t you use it?’?”

We learn how casket building has become part of the monks daily routine. Prayers start at 6:00 Am. Breakfast is taken in silence at 7:00. Mass is at 11:15.

At a recent meal, the monks scattered along long wooden tables anchored by the requisite Louisiana condiments of Tabasco and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, listening to a fellow monk read from Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln.”

There are more chores in the afternoon — some monks teach at the seminary next door — and the singing of psalms at 5:30. Dinner is at 6, the O’Reilly book replaced by a more religious text.

At the woodshop, several of the monks work with Coudrain and volunteers. Brother Elias Eichorn, the “iron monk” who recently completed the Boston Marathon and is training for a triathalon, works on lids. Brother Emmanuel Labrise, a fairly recent arrival from Pennsylvania, lines them with white cloth.

Isn’t that great detail and color? And isn’t it so different than what you might expect?

The workshop was dedicated Nov. 1, 2007, and a local Catholic newspaper reported the event. The cease-and-desist letter came immediately, Brown said.

The abbot said it was difficult to know what to do. The abbey had made a huge investment, but he was reluctant to sue for the right to sell the caskets.

“Was that something monasteries should do, or should we just lay low and be quiet about it?” Brown wondered. “A lot of these funeral directors are good Catholic men.”

It may have been nice to include a mention of why “good Catholic men” might be reluctant to sue. We do learn that additional aggressive action from funeral directors is what it took.

Anyway, the bulk of the piece is about the crony capitalism of the funeral industry in Louisiana. Arguments from both sides are given. And after a lengthy treatment of the legal battle, this is how the article ends:

“I was concerned that it would disturb the peace of the monastery by getting involved in something somewhat controversial, adversarial, but it hasn’t,” he said. “If you study monastic history, there were often conflicts between monks and civil authorities.”

Particularly considering that these monks are merely the hook for a larger story about the Institute for Justice, I thought this piece did a great job of incorporating actual religious sentiments and details.

Casket image via Shutterstock.

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  • Mike O.

    Excellent story. Very well done. I remembered reading about this story before, so I searched Reason.com and found this 2010 article. It includes a link to an earlier Reason article as well as a Wall Street Journal investigating. They’ve also embedded a short video by the Institute of Justice.

  • Mike O.

    Crumbs. I meant Institute For Justice. I also meant investigation not investigating.

  • Julia

    This also happened to a monastery in the MidWest a few years ago. It might have been Nebraska. It was the funeral home and casket makers who cause a stink about this kind of thing.

    I’m wondering if cemetery owners also object since the casket will biodegrade. Or are these pine boxes also required to be in concrete boxes in the ground so that the ground doesn’t cave in and cause mowing problems?

    It wasn’t that long ago that my great-grandfather, a cabinet maker, was also the guy who made his small town’s caskets and had the wakes in his living room. Relatives and friends stayed up all night with the deceased in his/her casket and carried it to the church across the street for the funeral Mass the next morning. No electric mowers to worry about messing up if the ground caved in back in those days.

    There is a movement to bury people in forests under trees. I read about a company that keeps track of where the body is buried so family can visit. I first saw it at the end of the last episode of the HBO series Six Feet Under and had no idea then that it was a growing practice. Don’t even need a wooden casket.

  • Julia

    should have said – at the foot of trees, not under trees.

  • Bill

    Great story. I love the part about public interest lawyers choosing sympathetic victims. It’s also nice to see clergy portrayed in that role for a change.

    One of the comments following the story offered this Solomonic wisdom:

    How about a compromise? Let the monks continue to make high-quality caskets, but allow theLouisian Funeral Directors Association to sell cheese and fruitcakes if they want. Then leave it in God’s hands to see who fares the better.


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