Benedictine monks seek economic freedom to pursue spiritual mission of casket-making

Their prayer is their work – “ora et labora.” Inside the two-story St. Joseph Woodworks on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Abbey in St. Benedict, Benedictine monks and volunteers daily create lots of noise and dust – and prayer.

Every handcrafted cypress casket the monks and their crew of volunteers turn out is an expression of their reverence for the dead and a connection between a grieving family and the spiritual life of the monks, said Benedictine Abbot Justin Brown.

The monks’ work had been imperiled until this summer, when a federal judge overturned an obscure state law that made it a crime for the monks to sell their handmade caskets to Louisiana citizens.

Foes still pressing appeal

While U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval’s ruling was a home run for the monks, the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is pressing an appeal with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Ultimately, the case, which the monks’ attorneys from the nonprofit Institute for Justice say revolves around “economic liberty,” probably will reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I’m a little surprised and concerned about the appeal, but I still feel that we have a very strong case and I have a great deal of confidence that we’ll win,” Abbot Justin said. “But we don’t know. I’m a little anxious about it.”

Protectionism hurt monks

The law is so arcane that it would allow the monks to make and sell their caskets to anyone in the world – as long as they do not reside in the state of Louisiana, said Deacon Mark Coudrain.

“One of the judge’s last statements was, ‘Let me understand this. I can go on the Internet and buy a casket from Wal-Mart, but I can’t buy one from these monks because they make it in Louisiana. Is that correct?’” Deacon Coudrain said. “Their attorneys said, ‘Yes.’”

Even crazier, Benedictine monks from St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana could sell their caskets to Louisiana residents, but the Benedictine monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey could not.

“We’re not opposed to people doing that, but they couldn’t order from us,” Abbot Justin said. “We’d like to be their first choice.”

Since Duval’s ruling overturned the law, at least for the time being, the monks have been making and selling an average of one casket a day – about double their previous output. Ironically, all the publicity about the legal case has raised interest in the strikingly plain cypress caskets, Abbot Justin said.

Controversy has rallied support

“It’s really caught a lot of people’s interest,” he said. “Any time the monks show up anywhere, people want to know about the casket case, and they tell us about how much they support what we’re doing and how they want to be able to buy a casket from us one day.”

The monks make two styles of caskets: the “monastic” sells for $1,500 and the “traditional” is $2,000. “That’s about the low end of what you would pay at a funeral home,” Deacon Coudrain said. “So, we’re not saying they’re cheap, but they are less expensive and the money is used to support the monks.”

Deacon Coudrain said because funeral homes often switch to a more expensive “a la carte” menu for services if a person buys a casket from another source, the savings on the cost of a funeral can be minimal.

Families appreciate monks

But, Abbot Justin said, people appreciate the handiwork and the spirituality of the monks and want that connection for their family.

“That’s why we insisted that we wanted to be able to directly sell the caskets ourselves and not be a wholesale casket company (that worked through the funeral homes),” Abbot Justin said. “What we are doing is providing the personal connection that we have with people. They know where the casket comes from, they know who made it, and there is a wonderful sense of connection with people to the abbey and our life.”

The monks also make small cypress urns for the interment of cremated remains. When two children died recently in Alabama, they made two children’s caskets and sent them to the family at no charge.

Most are supportive

Despite the legal wrangling, Abbot Justin said most local funeral directors have been very cordial and supportive to the monks when they deliver their caskets.

“We have good relationships with the funeral homes,” he said. “Many of them have been very supportive and even helpful.”

Inside the woodworking shop, Jeff Horchoff, who retired recently as a postal carrier, now volunteers six days a week, sawing, sanding and planing the cypress boards.

His pay is out of this world

“I’m not just building a box – this is really the prayer,” Horchoff said. “When you say prayer, most people think of the Hail Mary and the Our Father. But Benedictine spirituality is that your work becomes your prayer. As long as that’s going on, this doesn’t become a job. It’s in the service of God.

“That’s why I can get up early in the morning and get here. This is what I want to do. I’m looking for the next life. This one is passing, so I’m looking for that next one.”

Does he sometimes think he’s making his own casket?

“Probably,” Horchoff said with a smile. “But I’ve already worked out the deal. As long as they bury me here, that’s all I want them to do. If they can do that for me, that would be really wonderful.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .