Ghosts in news about those monks and their simple caskets

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So, in one level, my primary task in this post is to point GetReligion readers toward a very interesting business story in The New Orleans Times-Picayune. It is also interesting to note that this business story focuses on an important collision between big business and the free exercise of religion.

So far so good. The story gets the basics, when it comes to to both of those topics, including a nod toward the religious liberty question.

However, in this case the story left me wanting more in terms of a third angle, one directly linked to faith and even, some believers would argue, topics such as ancient traditions in worship and stewardship.

Let’s start at the beginning:

A federal appeals court ruled … that monks at St. Joseph Abbey near Covington should be allowed to sell handmade caskets from their monastery, despite opposition from Louisiana’s funeral home directors who claimed a sole right to sell caskets in the state. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision to strike down a state law limiting casket sales to licensed members of the funeral industry.

The decision marks a victory for the Benedictine monastery, which has struggled for several years for the right to sell simple, wooden caskets built by monks in a woodshop to fund their medical and education needs. In 2007, the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors ordered the abbey to cease sales after a funeral home owner filed a formal complaint.

“We’re just really thankful we can continue, because it means a lot to people,” said St. Joseph Abbey’s Abbot Justin Brown on Wednesday. “Every couple of weeks or so, I get a letter or a note or a phone call from people who have had our casket for a loved one, and they all are just so grateful and appreciative. It made them feel so good that they knew these caskets were made with love and prayer.”

For me, the key is right there — what does the abbot mean when he says that these caskets are made with “love and prayer”? Might that literally and liturgically be true? Also, might there be theological, as well as economic, reasons for some consumers to choose this product? (See this earlier Nola.com story for a few other basic details, such as pricing points on both sides of this debate.)

I know that this is, first and foremost, a story about law and business. I get that. The views of the funeral-industry lobby are described clearly and it’s easy for readers to grasp the shape of the legal issues that are at stake here:

In 2010, the abbey filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the state law as unconstitutional. The law limited casket sales to licensed funeral directors at state-licensed funeral homes. Directors must undergo an apprenticeship and finish 30 hours of college courses, and funeral homes must meet detailed requirements, such as a parlor to fit 30 people and room for viewing six caskets.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. found that the law improperly shielded the funeral home industry’s monopoly at the cost of consumers. The state board, which appealed the decision, argued that the law actually protected consumers and public safety.

In its opinion issued Wednesday, the 5th Circuit decisively laid out why it disagreed with the board: licensed funeral directors don’t receive special training in caskets; Louisiana law does not prevent consumers from buying third-party caskets from outside Louisiana, including online sales; and the state doesn’t require a person to be buried in a casket, the court noted.

Like I said, this is the most obvious news angle for the story.

However, for members of ancient churches there are theological issues at stake here as well, issues linked to why the monks do what they do, building the kinds of caskets that they build.

Think grace and simplicity for a moment: Who thinks that Pope Francis would understand where these monks are coming from? Journalists might want to look at this book — “A Christian Ending” — to understand the movement back towards simple burials and traditional funeral rites.

Where to start? I would be interested in a paragraph that fleshed out — journalistically speaking — a simple fact or two. Why are the monks themselves buried in caskets of this kind? What are the prayer rites that surround the work of the monks? This basic info is on the abbey website and hints at these subjects:

For more than 100 years, the abbey has maintained and cultivated an abiding spiritual presence in southern Louisiana that is manifested in our daily rhythms of prayer and witness through a life of simplicity. One physical symbol of the simple Benedictine life of prayer has been the pine caskets in which we monks are buried.

Over the years, the abbey has been asked to produce these caskets for individuals and has done so only on a very small scale and to select friends. Today, in an effort to support the needs of the abbey and to help maintain its communal life and apostolates, we are beginning to make available to the general public a line of cypress caskets under the name Saint Joseph Woodworks. We also hope that this enterprise will serve as a witness, to educate the greater community to the true meaning of death as taught by our Catholic faith.

Yes, this liturgical subject could be a whole story in and of itself. However, it could also be a paragraph or two in this otherwise fine business story. There are religious, as well as legal, issues looming over this report.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A good story might be why the funeral directors are so afraid of monastic caskets. I think it isn’t because of the business they are losing now, but fear of a trend toward simplicity (and less cost) in caskets.
    Indeed, for as far back as I can recall, one of the greatest complainst from families has been the high cost of caskets.

  • Jerry

    I’m wondering if this would even be a news story without the religious element. Government enforced guild monopolies are rampant with the current system of competition-minimizing crony capitalism. If the story were not about monks, I doubt there would have been much news coverage at all. Or if there were, I suspect it would have been minimal.

  • Pingback: Why Louisana is Going After These Monks and their Caskets

  • FW Ken

    A bit of background on the abbey’s previous business efforts would have been interesting. They have for years run a bakery supplying fresh bread to social service non-profits in New Orleans. Donations paid for it; have donations declined in through the last recession? They also run a minor seminary that is growing. Is the casket business supporting that?

    Not journalism, but this abbey is heavily decorated in Beuronese style murals. the church and the refectory are treasures and worth a sidetrip. The author Walker Percy was an oblate. They have an exhibit in the library and he’s buried in the cemetery.

  • Julia

    John Paul II had a plain casket. Benedict probably will, too.

    http://cache.daylife.com/imageserve/03vN8RvakR1xF/x342.jpg

    My Jewish brother-in-law was buried in a plain, pine casket. What do funeral homes do about that? Could Catholics buy the same kind of pine box from funeral directors that Jews are allowed to buy?

  • Loyolakiper

    What this story and the news reports do not tell you is that the law has been in force well before the Abbey started making caskets to be sold there. This was a bad business decision on the Abbey’s part to not look into the law before beginning a business endeavor.
    Second, the monks do not make the caskets themselves and the business (St Joseph’s Woodworks) is managed by a diocesan Deacon.
    Knowing this monastery intimately and visiting it weekly I find it a crying shame that these monks have played the martyr in all of this. Also, it should be noted that their casket prices have sky-rocketed and are on par with standard caskets. It seems that the simple pine box and the media attention has now got a big price tag!


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