Death, Monks, and Social Enterprise

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October 21, 2013; Catholic News


The Benedictine monks of St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, Louisiana handcraft plain cypress caskets and sell a limited number to local residents. (Among the desirable aspects of these coffins is the fact that the monks and volunteers are known to pray for the families of those whose remains will be held therein.) They used to make the caskets just for members of their own religious community, but then found that there was a call for them among others. But the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Homes attempted to enjoin the monks, citing a state law that requires anyone selling a casket to be a licensed funeral home director.

In 2011, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled the state law unconstitutional, allowing the monks to sell their caskets, but the LBEFH kept fighting. In October 2012, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans again ruled in the monks’ favor, and now the Supreme Court has refused to review the case, leaving the monks free to ply their trade.

According to Deacon Mark Coudrain, who runs St. Joseph Abbey Woodworks, the monks deliver about 20 caskets per month at two price points: $1,500 and $2,000. This represents a doubling of business since the fracas around the small enterprise started. The money made helps to support the abbey.

Benedictine Abbot Justin Brown commented,

“It’s more of a heart thing…. We didn’t quite understand all the legal ramifications when we started this, but we certainly felt it was a common-sense thing that something was wrong with this law. It affected our ability to simply sell our caskets to someone who wanted to buy them.”

“We really never intended to be in any kind of fight or adversarial relationship with the funeral directors…but, as we went into the case more and more, it became clear that according to the constitution we did have a right to free enterprise and that the regulations in this case were not well grounded because of the fact that there were no health and safety issues. In fact, Louisiana doesn’t even require caskets for burial.

“All of those things added up in our minds that we really ought to continue fighting this. It became clear that we were fighting not only for ourselves but for other people like us who encounter these kinds of regulations and keep them from going into business or to make an honest living.”

Various types of businesses have tried to restrict the operations of nonprofits when they compete in the same market. Over the past few years, NPQ has covered such confrontations in the realms of dentistry, veterinary services, and recreational centers.

But in our opinion, the monks and their caskets are a good example of what people may be looking for in the future of social enterprise: quality goods whose profits accrue to a community of value. The prayers then provide that extra that makes a difference to the consumer’s soul. —Ruth McCambridge

  • Steven

    Bravo to the monks for providing “quality goods whose profits accrue to a community of value!”

    On the earthly plane, customers can feel wonderful that they are supporting a terrific endeavor at a phenomenally reasonable price.

    Actually, the value-added prayers have an infinitely and eternally greater value than the cost of the casket. The communion of saints will truly bless the monks, the purchasers, the decedents, and their families.