HALL OF SHAME INDUCTEE: Louisiana

UPDATE 8.11.2010—St. Joseph’s Abbey is suing the state of Louisiana for the right to sell coffins.

UPDATE – No sooner had we posted the story below about Louisiana trying to stop a Catholic church from selling caskets to the public, but we discovered the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is up to even more shenanigans. The minutes of their March 5 and 6, 2008 meeting, contain these gems:

 

  • Discussion re: the FTC and their regulations concerning when to present a GPL to a possible consumer ensued. It was suggested by Mr. Pellerin that our State consider, and actually apply for Federal Exemption if our State laws as they relate to the FTC are equal or greater than the FTC regulations. “FROP” is a term meaning Funeral Regulation Offense Program and is used by the FTC when making visits to funeral homes where a violation of the Rule is found.

So the state thinks its consumer protections are so good that it should be exempted from the FTC Funeral Rule? Funeral Consumers Alliance will certainly oppose such efforts.

  • It was also suggested that the State Associations be contacted and informed that the FTC will be visiting Louisiana funeral homes as mock consumers, in the very near future. Mr. Rasch was requested to write a letter to the FTC inquiring what the time frame is to provide consumers with a copy of the GPL.

In case that wasn’t clear – at least one member of the state board (which is legally required to protect consumers) thinks the government should warn the funeral directors’ trade associations that the Federal Trade Commission is going to conduct secret shopper visits to make sure funeral homes are complying with the law. (Read the whole story by clicking “read more” below). . .

For what purpose? So the association can warn its member funeral homes so they’re on their best behavior and FTC investigators don’t get to see how real consumers are treated? Is this an appropriate use of Louisiana taxpayer dollars? (By the way, Louisiana State Board – we’ve sent a copy of your minutes to the Federal Trade Commission).

State Board Goes After Catholic Church for Selling Caskets

Simply unbelievable. Long known for its hostility to the rights of funeral consumers – the state is one of only seven that have the gall to outlaw private, family-directed funerals without an undertaker – Lousiana has sunk to depths even we wouldn’t have expected. The state board of funeral directors is going after a Catholic church for selling its own monk-made caskets. A newspaper article quotes the board’s attorney:

“No one can practice the law without passing the bar. You can’t be a doctor unless you meet certain standards. The same thing is true for those who sell caskets,” said Michael Rasch, the funeral board’s attorney.

Funeral directors are licensed and taught funeral arrangements such as which type of caskets – wood or metal – and which sizes of caskets are allowed in certain cemeteries, formal training the Abbey does not have to sell caskets, Rasch said.

It’s astonishing an educated lawyer doesn’t appear to be the least bit embarrassed to make such weak arguments.This may turn out to be a good thing, though. It looks like the board’s latest desperate attempts to defend an indefensible law might push public sentiment past the breaking point and get Louisiana’s protectionist law off the books. We hope St. Joseph Abbey doesn’t give in to the state’s intimidation tactics. Fight on SJ Abbey – you’ve got our moral support.

Here’s an account of the whole affair from the St. Tammany News:

 

Abbey casket making practice under fire

By Matthew Penix
St. Tammany News

Mark Coudrain, a former chief executive for WLAE TV, leads a much simpler life now. Two years ago he scrapped the corporate hustle, was ordained a deacon, joined the Benedictine monks of St. Joseph Abbey in Covington and focused on his childhood dream of woodworking, specializing in simple unadorned cypress burial caskets for monks and the public.

It was his calling.

But now an obscure law is calling Coudrain and the Abbey criminals, saying the practice of selling caskets to parishioners without a license is illegal and could net a $2,500 fine for each violation.

“This is Big Brother picking on these poor monks,” Abbey lawyer Evans Schmidt said.

In what amounts to a battle of religious devotion versus manmade law, the abbey claims its caskets help “provide a greater understanding of the passing nature of our earthly existence,” a religious experience no manmade prohibitions can trump. In the year since the abbey opened its woodworking shop, roughly a hundred others parishioners have agreed, plunking down $1,500 to $2,000 to buy the caskets fit for a monk. It’s a pleasure parishioners seem to relish, despite the abbey’s acknowledgement of selling the caskets illegally even in the face of cease and desist order to stop.

And the Abbey takes no measures to hide it. The Clarion Harold has published stories advertising the Abbey’s caskets for sale. And the Abbey’s own Web site, www.clcabbey.com, touts the religious experience of being buried in a casket made for monks. It even provides a number to call to make a purchase.

But the problem, opponents said, is the practice is illegal in Louisiana, one of at least six states that allows only licensed funeral directors to sell caskets to the public. The Abbey, a seminary, church and college on River Road, is not considered a funeral director, according to the Louisiana Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, the state agency overseeing the funeral industry.

“No one can practice the law without passing the bar. You can’t be a doctor unless you meet certain standards. The same thing is true for those who sell caskets,” said Michael Rasch, the funeral board’s attorney.

Funeral directors are licensed and taught funeral arrangements such as which type of caskets – wood or metal – and which sizes of caskets are allowed in certain cemeteries, formal training the Abbey does not have to sell caskets, Rasch said.

Rasch, through the board, issued a cease and desist order Dec. 11, 2007, after receiving several complaints from competing funeral directors.

“It’s not that we’re picking on the Catholic Church or the Catholic order,” Rasch said. “Were trying to enforce the laws of the state of Louisiana. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it’s the law.”

That law however, is facing some opposition. State Rep. Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs, authored a bill this year that would have allowed vendors other than funeral directors, i.e. the Abbey, to sell caskets to the public. It failed, and Simon could not be reached for comment this week.

“This statute has no public policy value whatsoever,” said Schmidt, the Abbey’s attorney. “This is fundamentally the sale of a wooden box. This isn’t about health and safety issues here. This law is a perfectly protected measure to give funeral directors a monopoly.”

In Oklahoma, that argument reached the Supreme Court, where it ultimately failed. Justices in 1999 voted 2-1 to let stand the Oklahoma law that allows only funeral homes to sell caskets directly to the public. The appeal attacked the law as unconstitutional, the same claim the Abbey makes.

“This law has no legs,” Schmidt said. “It’s a foolish statute … an unconstitutional infringement on their right to free enterprise.”

But Boyd Mothe Jr., vice president of Metairie-based Mothe Funeral Homes, one of several industry insiders to file a complaint, said he respects the Abbey’s reasoning but said society can’t disobey laws because they’re not agreeable.

“Nobody wants to be out of favor with the church or raise a big stink about this, but we want everyone to be playing on the same level,” Mothe said.

He said he would “be happy” to arrange a purchase from the Abbey and then sell the caskets to clients with little to no profit. “I bet that’s true with many funeral directors,” he said.

“I realize there is something to be said about a religious artifact, a casket with a rosary from Rome on it,” he said. “Those caskets are held dear by many. I don’t want to publicly denounce the Abbey … I just want them to follow the rules.”

But “they took an Aryan position that they were above the law, that they could do whatever they wanted to do,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Abbey’s monks are considering all options and haven’t decided whether or not to comply with the cease and desist order, Schmidt said.

“One physical symbol of the simple Benedictine life of prayer has been the pine caskets in which we monks are buried,” the Abbey wrote on its Web site, adding later, “We also hope that this enterprise (casket selling) will serve as a witness, to educate the greater community to the true meaning of death as taught by our Catholic faith.”

In the end, “the monks just want to be left alone, do their own thing, pray and build their caskets,” Schmidt said.

About the author

Author description olor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Sed pulvinar ligula augue, quis bibendum tellus scelerisque venenatis. Pellentesque porta nisi mi. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Etiam risus elit, molestie