When Hurricane Katrina tore the tops off the trees at St. Joseph Abbey, the Benedictine monks had to think fast. Gone was the $20 million pine harvest that helped pay for their school outside New Orleans.
The teachings of St. Benedict mandate that his followers work with their hands, so the New Orleans monks took the centuries-old tradition of making their own funeral caskets and decided to make them for others. In November 2007, they started offering simple, wooden caskets for $1,500 each, far less than those sold at funeral homes, which go for over $2,000.
But Louisiana's board of embalmers and funeral directors would have no such thing. Before the monks had even sold a casket, the board demanded that they stop production. Funeral directors on the board even wrote to potential buyers, warning them about the "far-reaching consequences" of buying "illegal caskets."
The monks went rogue. They made the caskets anyway, sued the state in federal court and won at the district and appellate levels. The case could advance to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The monks sold 230 caskets nationwide last year. Abbot Justin Brown, who leads the monastery, said it became clear that "this law is to protect the interests of a group," namely, funeral directors.
"I certainly did feel moral qualms on one level, but on another level, I felt this law is so ridiculous and unjust, we need to do something."
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