Mark Coudrain leads the woodworks at St. Joseph Abbey / Dustin Renwick

Mark and the monks

First, the caskets. Then the lawsuit. The next stop for this small monastery will likely be the U.S. Supreme Court

In a question that embodied the cycle of human life, Mark Coudrain’s father requested a favor that dealt with death.

He wanted his son to construct a casket.

Coudrain, director of the woodworking shop at St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College, built the simple burial box after his father died. Coudrain’s mother bought the casket from the small monastery located in Covington, La.

“That’s what I could be fined and go to jail for,” Coudrain said.

In Louisiana, only licensed funeral homes can sell caskets to families, even though the monks can ship their product anywhere in the nation.

A five-year legal dispute has resulted from this question of authority, and the next stop could be the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even monks need money

The setting sun filters through moss hanging on an oak whose outstretched branches calm the end of the day like a conductor in the orchestra pit of the abbey’s cemetery.

In the St. Joseph Woodworks building nearby, seven volunteers, two monks and a part-time employee piece together six wooden walls. The woodworkers handcraft about 20 caskets each month and sell two types of simple cypress boxes for $1,500 and $2,000.

Yet under current state law, the abbey is illegally selling a product.

Abbott Justin Brown received a cease and desist letter from the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors before a single casket sold in 2007.

“My first response was surprise, then panic,” Brown said. “We had not intended to break the law.”

He laughed. “Generally, we’re pretty law-abiding citizens here.”

Lumber from the monastery’s pine trees used to pay the bills, but Hurricane Katrina razed 60 percent of the forest.

Tornadoes “knocked and twisted these very tall pine trees,” Brown said. “They twisted them like you twist a toothpick.”

Faced with the idea that their main source of income would take a decade or more to fully revive, the abbey’s leaders explored options.

Monks at St. Joseph’s had made caskets for years on a small scale, but they rarely sold them to outside parties. Coudrain worked at a TV station in New Orleans at the time, but he had previously trained in cabinet making.

As an alumnus, he proposed the switch from occasional one-offs to a full-scale casket business.

The law of the land

Regardless of what happens to the soul when we die, our bones remain on Earth, in it, whether they reside in a cushy casket or a cypress coffin.

Attorney Darpana Sheth said the current state law is designed to strictly limit competition. There are no health or safety reasons for the law — the state doesn’t require a person’s body to be buried in any kind of casket. Sheth and the northern Virginia-based Institute for Justice represent the monks in the case.

When Sheth joined the case a few years ago, she initially thought it was an example government restrictions run amok. Instead, she found a case more universal than the walls of Louisiana funeral homes.

“This is a specific industry lobbying for a law to disadvantage competitors,” she said. “This case is about the economic liberty of American entrepreneurs across the country.”

Judge Patrick Higginbotham, of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, agreed in his March 2013 ruling.

“The funeral directors have offered no rational basis for their challenged rule and, try as we are required to do, we can suppose none,” he wrote in his opinion.

But other circuit courts have disagreed.

Supreme supervision

The March ruling in favor of the abbey mirrors a similar case involving the funeral industry that was resolved in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Futhermore, a 9th Circuit ruling about pest controllers also fits with the 5th and 6th Circuit decisions. However, another casket case in the 10th Circuit was decided in favor of the funeral home industry.

All the cases deal with a specific industry and laws regarding competition: economic protectionism versus free trade.

The lack of unity among decisions means that St. Joseph Abbey and the Louisiana funeral board could argue this particular case at the highest court in the country.

In July 2013, the state funeral board filed its petition for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. If granted, the Supreme Court would review the case, an option bolstered by the circuit split.

Such a petition “will be granted only for compelling reasons,” according to Supreme Court rules, but circuit splits require “an exercise of this Court’s supervisory power.”

If the knowledge economy runs in the cloud, the apprentice economy stays on the ground, as with the woodworkers who shape the raw materials of the earth.

And as the woodworking trade has changed little during the course of history, so too has the abbey remained much the same throughout the legal proceedings.

“I’ve always felt like it’s in God’s hands,” Coudrain said. “That’s the best place for it to be.”