Coffin Cartel tells Louisiana monks they can’t sell caskets

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Tue, August 24th, 2010

An embalming board referred to by critics as the Coffin Cartel has told Benedictine monk carpenters in the woods of Louisiana that they can’t sell their simple cypress caskets.

The monks make the coffins from wood gathered in a forest on their property and use the income to support the abbey. Their handmade coffins cost $2,000 while many on the market today are garish, mass-produced hulks that cost between $5,000 and $10,000. The Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors says that before the monks can sell their wares they need to pay a set of fees and obtain a license that would require them to redesign their abbey into a traditional funeral parlor equipped with embalming equipment and staffed by licensed embalmers.

“We just want to do our work without the threat of prison time,” the director of the abbey’s woodshop recently told reporters outside the U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

The case, which could go all the way to the Supreme Court, brings up a larger issue, which is that those siding with the monks say laws like the one in Louisiana restrict consumer access and constrict the coffin market. The recent entry of companies like Walmart and Costco into the coffin business seems to support the notion that the market is controlled by a few giant companies. But in small work spaces across the country and around the world, strange and novel coffins are being born.

When monks at the New Melleray Abbey, which occupies a woodsy property near Dubuque, Iowa, wanted to diversify revenue beyond farming they looked to coffin making. Their coffins cost between $775 and $1,975 and include a pillow, mattress and adjustable bed. “Along with prayer and study, casket-making is an extension of our sacred work,” reads the abbey’s website. “Our methods are aimed at preserving the world as God made it.”

, a British company run by an earthy couple, crafts caskets from locally grown willow trees. The trees grow along riverbanks and in floodplains and have numerous environmental benefits, such as stabilizing the soil with their long fibrous roots and providing habitat for wildlife. “There are many different types of willow,” touts the company’s website. “It is the material that once packaged all our products, before the advent of oil derived plastics.” The company also makes willow baby cradles, willow baskets, yurts and Medieval dresses.

A San Francisco Bay Area company called Final Footprint makes coffins out of bamboo; they made the coffin that actress Lynn Redgrave was recently buried in. This company also promotes a crunchy sustainable image. “Everything is born, grows, matures, contributes to the glorious swirl of life, and then returns to the earth so that other new lives can begin,” reads their website. Final Footprint also makes coffins from bamboo, willow, cardboard, pine and banana leaf.

ARKA Ecopod is a British company that makes coffins from old newspaper and mulberry pulp. The sleek Ecopod resembles a large caterpillar cocoon; it biodegrades naturally when put in the ground. The coffin comes with handles for easy carrying and the interior can be lined with red, cream or pale blue feathers. “It’s hard to imagine a more lovely transport to the Great Hereafter,” states a funeral industry blogger that reviewed the coffin. “What a way to go. If the four corner steel casket was our grandparents’ Cadillac to the Life Eternal, the Ecopod is surely the hybrid drive of a gre