Death + the Economy Death + the Law Funeral Industry

Live Free or Die…in a Hand Crafted Benedictine Monk Casket Part II

Louisiana Monks Go to Court to Sell Their Caskets
Robert Barnes, Washington Post (May 30, 2012)
Not very long after God told some at St. Joseph Abbey that the way out of financial hardship might be selling the monks’ handcrafted caskets, the state of Louisiana arrived with a different message.

In August 2010, I posted some articles and information about an intriguing legal case in the great state of Louisiana. The case involves a group of Benedictine monks being told by the state of Louisiana that they are not allowed to sell their handcrafted wooden caskets. Robert Barnes excellent article in the Washington Post explains both the backstory and the litigation’s most recent developments.

Death + Technology Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Coffin Making: Now with Barcodes and Touch Screens

Bringing the Coffin Industry Back From the Dead
How barcodes and touch screens are resuscitating a casket factory
Ben Austen, The Atlantic (December 2010)

Modern, industrial casket making is a manufacturing business like any other, but for the fact that most people never think about modern, industrial casket making. The above article in The Atlantic does an excellent job of capturing how American casket making has become a largely automated industry, similar to the auto business.

This article is also about changes to the American labor force but in a decidedly niche business. It turns out that the American casket industry is suffering from many of the same problems faced by manufacturers all across the country. You can read about many of those death and dead body industries in the Death + the Economy section.

Out of curiosity, I went to YouTube to look for casket/coffin making videos and found the following vintage 1970s film. The YouTube video is actually instructive because it shows how the casket industry used to manufacture caskets before the introduction of the automation technologies.

Death + the Economy Death + the Law Funeral Industry

Live Free or Die…in a Hand Crafted Benedictine Monk Casket

St. Joseph Abbey’s Monks Battle State Funeral Industry Regulators for Right to Sell Caskets
Ramon Antonio Vargas, The Times-Picayune (August 13, 2010)

One of the lesser-known classic blunders is trying to prevent jovial Benedictine monks, living peacefully in their Louisiana monastery, from selling hand made wooden caskets to the general public. Not unlike starting a land war in Asia or a battle of wits with a Sicilian. Stated simply, the odds aren’t that good.


So it goes that the monks of the Saint Joseph Abbey of St. Benedict were ordered by the state to cease and desist selling their hand crafted caskets to the good people of Louisiana. Why is this you might ask? Well, Louisiana laws stipulates that only ‘funeral establishments’ can sell ‘funeral merchandise’ such as caskets.

And here is that law:

Louisiana Revised Statute 37:848
C. It shall be unlawful for anyone to engage in the business of funeral directing or embalming as defined in R.S. 37:831 unless such business is conducted by a duly licensed funeral establishment.

But what does that mean? Well, let us look at RS 37:831 for clarity:

Louisiana Revised Statute 37:831
(37) “Funeral directing” means the operation of a funeral home, or, by way of illustration and not limitation, any service whatsoever connected with the management of funerals, or the supervision of hearses or funeral cars, the purchase of caskets or other funeral merchandise, and retail sale and display thereof, the cleaning or dressing of dead human bodies for burial, and the performance or supervision of any service or act connected with the management of funerals from time of death until the body or bodies are delivered to the cemetery, crematory, or other agent for the purpose of disposition.

The problem with this law is that it seems to contradict the US Federal Trade Commission’s oversight of the funeral industry, usually just referred to as the Funeral Rule. The second article at the top of the page is the first one that I have seen which highlights this problem.

There is a lot of history as to how and why the Funeral Rule (which most people don’t know exists) came into being. In a nutshell, the Funeral Rule states what a consumer’s legal rights are when paying for a funeral. The FTC helpfully publishes Paying Final Respects: Your Rights When Buying Funeral Goods & Services which is the law, literally, for the American funeral industry.

This all brings me back to the Saint Joseph Abbey monks because FTC rules clearly state that any person can:

Provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you purchase elsewhere. The funeral provider cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn you bought online, at a local casket store, or somewhere else — or charge you a fee to do it. The funeral home cannot require you to be there when the casket or urn is delivered to them.

So unless I’m missing something (and I could be) it appears that Louisiana state law is trying to supersede federal law and that, generally, is frowned upon by the US Courts. Indeed, the general wisdom on ‘third-party casket sales’ is that consumers have every right to purchase these funeral goods without hindrance and that a funeral home cannot refuse to use said third-party casket. Coincidentally, the August-September issue of International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association Magazine (one of my favorites…) has a lengthy discussion on using third-party caskets, such as the ones made by the monks.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: AHA!!!! But these monks are not consumers they are producers of caskets and therefore not covered by the FTC Funeral Rule. This is correct but still a problem because the general public is being denied its federally backed right to purchase these caskets.

In my reading of the FTC Funeral Rule, the state of Louisiana cannot dictate whom the public buys caskets from and, as such, cannot control what constitutes a legitimate casket maker. Or, at least, can’t say that the St. Joseph Abbey monks have to be a ‘funeral home’ in order to sell their caskets.

All of this, then, brings me to the Institute for Justice, a Washington, DC based, capital ‘L’ for Libertarian, public interest law firm. The IJ is representing the monks in their court case against the state of Louisiana and presenting the case as a total violation of the monks’ Constitutional rights. What I’m not clear on is why the IJ isn’t just making the easier point about the FTC rules.

Unless, of course, the Institute for Justice doesn’t really care for the Federal Trade Commission, which would make sense given its Libertarian ethos.

Don’t get me wrong– I love the Libertarians. As a group, the Libertarians equally antagonize most American political parties and that is always good to see.

I just wonder if the video that the IJ produced on behalf of the monks (please see below) is a little more, ummm, over-the-top than it needs to be? Rarely do I have trouble distinguishing between an old Saturday Night Live commercial and an actual advocacy ad but this one comes close.

Besides, the state of Louisiana is going to lose this case. A few weeks ago, Meg posted a piece on Casket Company Trust Busting currently going on in America and it is clear that unfair business practices are on the funeral industry radar.

Don’t pick on the monks Louisiana. You aren’t just messing with some jovial band of Benedictines. Oh no. You are staring into the steely, cold gaze of the Libertarians…

Death + the Law Funeral Industry

Casket Trust-busting on the Horizon?

Consumer Advocates Want More Competition in Casket Market
April Dembosky, Marketplace (August 2, 2010)

American Public Media’s Marketplace has a short radio segment about a consumer advocacy group suing the three major casket companies for monopolizing the market. A federal judge will decide later this week whether the companies’ distribution policy of selling caskets to anyone but delivering them only to funeral homes creates an unfair market for competition and consumers who want more choice.

A possible word slip by a casket company official may be indicative of the industry’s attitude. From the transcript:

Mark Allen from the Casket and Funeral Supply Association of America insists there’s plenty of competition in his industry. “I’m contacted every week by a new upstart company that’s trying to get some advice for getting started in this industry.”

A new “upstart” company? Doesn’t he mean “startup”? So much for downplaying hostility.

Death + Humor Funeral Industry

Sexy Coffin Calendar Showdown!

Coffin Calendars Are a Sexy Hit
New Poland Express (October 16, 2009)

via Trendhunter Magazine, “Controversial Casket Calendars”

Last October DeathRef tweeted about Italian coffin maker CofaniFunebri, which created a coffin product catalog featuring scantily clad goths. (This did not make the Death Reference Desk proper — while fine with being a sexy goth coffin calendar tweeter, I was reluctant to become a sexy goth coffin calendar blogger.)

Hesitation, begone! This is officially a post-worthy trend, which I initially missed but to which Trendhunter (appropriately enough) just alerted me. Not about to be outdone, Poland’s largest coffin manufacturer, Lindner, came out with its own sexy model, coffin-humping calendar. Hey, guys, don’t you know there’s a crisis going on? And perhaps it’s because of declining casket sales that marketing teams are getting creative (read: skanky) with outreach initiatives.

In response to criticism about the appropriateness of such a venture, the Lindner managing director, Barthosz Linder, says:

I don’t believe that sex alongside death is shocking and offends people who have just lost someone close to them. I produce coffins. I could produce furniture or something else. But I don’t. And this is a good coffin. I decided on such advertising because I wanted people to know about our brand. That’s it.

And about ripping off the Italians? What say you to that, Mr. Lindner?

The idea for this calendar is mine. Although I admit that I was inspired by an Italian calendar. There, a company does the same thing, but I thought, ‘Well, our Polish girls are prettier, and our coffins are better. … So we can do better.’

This is the part where I’d say, “You be the judge!” if I didn’t suspect you had better things to do. But if not, you can check out the full CofaniFunebri calendar here and see teaser pages from the Lindner calendar here, which boasts of “12 beautiful coffins [and] marvelous pictures of 12 beautiful Polish girls in magic landscapes.”

Burial Death + Technology Death + the Law

Premature Burial Device Patents

Brace yourself for some library science / classification / database search nerdery… or skip below to see a list of U.S. patents related to premature burial!

This morning I ran across a list of suspected premature burials with some interesting contemporaneous newspaper clips (it also links to How to Survive If You Are Buried Alive from the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook — nice!).

It got me thinking: I love all those turn-of-the-twentieth-century inventions designed to save you in the event of your premature burial — bells attached to strings, extraneous air shafts and electrical devices that would detect your stirring corpse. I figured there must be patents on these, and sure enough: the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides them online.

Unfortunately their interface is exceptionally ugly, with a series of dazzling numbers and codes that make me salivate as a librarian oh sweet luscious data! but claw my eyes out as a blogger wanting to share something cool with reg’lar folk. In addition, many are images only that required a plugin I couldn’t make work. Argh! It’s all right there, and yet… not.

So I looked to our information overlord, Google. Google Patents draws data from the USPTO in the slick and familiar Google preview and downloadable PDF format (including all the fascinating line drawings). But, search fiend that I am, I could not in wholesale fashion extract what I wanted, either via keywords or using the US Classification field in the Advanced Search.

This allegedly corresponds to the PTO Manual of Classification for US Patents. The proper code, however — class 27 (undertaking), subclass 31 (life signals) — returned only a few results, with such oddities as “Optical Illusion Wear” and “Martial Arts Uniform Top.” A patent for a gi classified as a life signal device? Only if it improves one’s ability to karate chop out of a casket.

Stung by this death info travesty, I used the patent numbers from the USPTO list (generated by classification code) and found them on Google Patents, for the delight and convenience of the interwebs. (I did exclude a couple that were irrelevant, and there are a few below that seem more concerned with the living’s ability to monitor and view the dead… eek.) The dates below reference the filing date for the patent, not the issue date. Enjoy!

US Patents for detecting “life signals” / preventing premature burial

1984 — Apparatus and method for detecting body vibrations

1980 — Coffin alarm system

1954 — Safety release for refrigerators

1924 — Coffin
“This invention relates to an improved coffin and seeks, among other objects, to provide a coffin wherein a body may be preserved more or less indefinitely” with a sight tube extending from coffin to above ground “so that the body may be readily viewed in the coffin as desired.”

1921 — Attachment for coffin
“This invention has for its prime object the provision of a simple, inexpensive and durable device which can readily be applied to burial caskets for the purpose of enabling relatives and friends of deceased persons to view their features after interment.”

1912 — Life-detecting apparatus

1909 — Alarm for indicating life in buried persons

1909 — Apparatus for preventing human beings from being buried alive

1908 — Grave attachment
“This invention relates to new and useful improvements in grave attachments… whereby a body may be observed or watched after being interred.”

1907 — Safety-coffin

“This invention is distinguished from the already known arrangements by the fact that an opportunity is afforded the apparently dead person, when he awakens, of opening the coffin automatically, with very slight exertion on his part, so that he can immediately obtain a supply of fresh air and may afterwards leave the coffin.” In other words, it’s SPRING LOADED.

1903 — Apparatus for signaling from graves (Crosby and Henry)

1901 — Apparatus for signaling from graves (Griffith)

1900 — Apparatus for preventing premature burial

1899 — Electric device for indicating the awakening of persons buried alive

1899 — Coffin
“An improved coffin which permits the body to be kept during a certain time until decomposition sets in and, moreover, enables the person inclosed in the coffin to give warning if there has been a mistake.”

1897 — Apparatus for saving persons buried alive

1886 — Coffin
“My invention has relation to a coffin wherein the lid is provided with transparent doors or panels held down normally upon the lid against the tension of springs and adapted to be released and thrown upward from the lid upon the operation of a device located within the coffin.”

1886 — Apparatus for saving people buried alive

1886 — Coffin
“If the person buried in a state of trance opens his eyes on returning to consciousness, he sees light through the glass disks of the lid and will, on coming to his senses, unconsciously make a movement by which the mechanism which stands under the pressure of the springs is immediately released and the springing up of the lid is effected.”

1885 — Coffin
“We also supply the coffin with an electric battery, the wires therefrom leading though the air inlet pipe to an alarm on the outside of the ground, the circuit of said alarm being closed by a slight movement of the revivified person.”

1894 — Grave-signal

1893 — Grave-alarm

1892 — Coffin-signal

1891 — Annuciator for the supposed dead

1887 — Device for indicating life in buried persons

1885 — Burial-casket

1884 — Safety apparatus for the preservation of the dead until their burial

1882 — Device for indicating life in buried persons

1882 — Grave-signal

1878 — Improvement in coffin-torpedoes

1871 — Improvement in life-detectors for coffins

1868 — Improved burial-case

cremation Funeral Industry

Cremating Supersized Dead Bodies

Bath Cemetery Refused to Cremate Man Because He Was Too Heavy
The Bath Chronicle (December 14, 2009)

Every once in a while, a dead body story brings home the following point: all the issues that surround the living world don’t entirely stop when a person dies. Indeed, funeral directors and crematorium operators encounter most aspects of the human condition but out of sight. And most certainly out of mind.

So, it came to pass, that a UK man weighing 40 stone (560 pounds) died and he wanted to be cremated. Once he was in his coffin, his total weight became 50 stone (700 pounds) and the local crematorium said that they couldn’t take his corpse because of his size. The crematorium is in Bath (where I live) and the story was reported by both The Bath Chronicle and the BBC (Obese 40-stone Somerset man ‘too heavy to cremate’).

Correct lifting

You can read either article for the full details. Here’s the thing: this isn’t a new problem, or at least, it has been an ever increasing problem for the last ten years. In 2003, the New York Times ran the following article on Goliath Casket Company: On the Final Journey, One Size Doesn’t Fit All. Here is the gist of the article:

Perhaps nowhere is the issue of obesity in America more vividly illustrated than at Goliath Casket of Lynn, Ind., specialty manufacturers of oversize coffins.

There one can see a triple-wide coffin — 44 inches across, compared with 24 inches for a standard model. With extra bracing, reinforced hinges and handles, the triple-wide is designed to handle 700 pounds without losing what the euphemism-happy funeral industry calls its ”integrity.”

Safety Lifting

When Keith and Julane Davis started Goliath Casket in the late 1980’s, they sold just one triple-wide each year. But times, along with waistlines, have changed; the Davises now ship four or five triple-wide models a month, and sales at the company have been increasing around 20 percent annually. The Davises say they base their design specifications not on demographic studies so much as on simple observations of the world around them.

”It’s just going to local restaurants or walking in a normal Wal-Mart,” Mrs. Davis said. ”People are getting wider and they’re getting thicker.”

And even though the owners of Goliath Casket Company made these observations at the local Wal-Mart, supersized dead bodies are an increasingly common UK phenomena.

In fact, The Guardian newspaper printed the following article in 2006: Obesity is undertakers’ fresh burden.

I totally understand why the crematorium officials at the Haycombe Cemetery and Crematorium initially declined to cremate the 40 stone dead body: lifting and transporting XXXL dead bodies is potentially dangerous for the workers. Lifting an object that heavy can cause back injuries. 50 stone weightlifting (remember that that’s 700 pounds) is best left to the gym.

Ferno Maxx Cart

In the end, everything worked out because the funeral home got hold of a special cart built for transporting large dead bodies.

And this is the moral of the story: as human waistlines increase so does the demand for heavy load bearing dead body equipment.

XXXL dead bodies translate into supersized profits for some death industry sectors.

Death + Humor Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Wal-Mart: Save Money. Live Better. Die Cheap(ly).

Wal-Mart Offering Low-Cost Caskets, Urns On Its Website
Emily Fredrix, Associated Press (October 28, 2009)

It’s all over the death-dar: following Costco’s lead, Wal-Mart now offers caskets and urns for sale online, with priority Fed-Ex freight shipment anywhere in the continental U.S.

With prices that undercut funeral home options combined with its juggernaut consumer base — not to mention “and in this economy” as all are wont to say — Wal-Mart can expect to make a, well, killing in the death biz, potentially causing the funeral industry to rethink its pricing strategies and oftentimes gouging of customers. In the meantime, the rest of us can enjoy / be numbed by the terrible puns of talking heads:

[This was one a video, but it’s been removed. It was terrible.]

This poor man actually apologizes for the crappy copy halfway through, sunk beneath his breath, “I didn’t write this.” Oh, the humanity! The indignity!

When death meets consumerism meets mass media, watch out. When nothing is sacred — is trivialized, cheap — we don’t have to think about what anything means. Like death, and ripping off the bereaved, and making unethical purchases because it’s all you can afford.

Burial Funeral Industry

Death Objects on Video from the MN Historical Society

Minnesota Historical Society Funerary Objects
Matt Anderson, MNHS Curator (October 19, 2009)

Just in time for Halloween. The Minnesota Historical Society presents the following video on Funerary Objects from its own collection. Many state historical societies have these kinds of objects in storage. It’s always interesting to see how they present them and when. Halloween, of course, is a logical (if not too easy) mark.

Burial Death + Biology Eco-Death

How Dead Bodies Become Beetle Juice

To Casket Or Not To Casket? One Of America’s Great Field Biologists Thinks About Burial
Robert Krulwich, NPR (October 9, 2009)

NPR science reporter Robert Krulwich (also of RadioLab fame) did this short piece (it’s a little over five minutes long) on the decomposition of dead animal bodies and their consumption by beetles. He interviews Professor Bernd Heinrich, an expert on all things animal, insect and decomposition. Check it out!
I am all for being left to rot in the woods after I am dead. Based on my current body size, I bet I could feed thousands of beetle families. It would be my way of giving back to the natural world.

Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Death and the Economy: Unclaimed Bodies Fill the Detroit Morgue

Detroit: Too broke to bury their dead
Poppy Harlow, (October 1, 2009)

This CNN story on Detroit is heartbreaking. The economic situation in Detroit is horrible enough, but this particular dispatch says more about the financial straits of life and death than anything I have seen.

Over the summer, the New York Times ran an article on why home burials were a sign of the recession. I wrote about it here. The unclaimed dead body situation in Detroit is a much more profound statement about the economy than home burials.

Not only can families not afford to retrieve a deceased loved one because of the cost (even if they want to) the Wayne County Morgue does not have enough money for the final disposition of the bodies. So the bodies all remain in cold storage, waiting for something to happen.

Watch this video attached to CNN article:

Articles about the economy and death have been a re-occurring theme the last few months. This article got published in Green Bay, WI: Unclaimed cremated remains accumulate at Allouez cemetery.

Unclaimed Cremated Remains in Green Bay

Earlier in September, the New York Times ran an article on Wall Street investment firms buying and selling elderly and ill persons’ life insurance policies: The Back to Business: Wall Street Pursues Profit in Bundles of Life Insurance.

And this AP article discusses a subject that I assumed would pop up eventually: Weak economy sparks rebirth of funeral sciences.

Then there are these stories: that the economy is actually good for some funeral homes because of increased mortality rates…

The video is the lead to this article about a Dallas, TX funeral home: At Golden Gate Funeral Home, Bodies Are John Beckwith Jr.’s Business, And Business Is Booming.

But when push comes to shove, and the economy gets really really bad, there is always Craigslist…

Date: 2009-07-20, 10:59AM
Guaranteed to keep your Goth hide translucent white during these hot and bright summer days, this hand-made coffin is just right for the petit Vampire or Vampette. If you are just under 5 feet tall (or can shape-shift to something smaller) with a 29-inch wing span, you will feel cozy and safe sleeping away the pesky daylight hours with this tasteful but unassuming box tucked away in your lair.

Goth Coffin

Your minions can keep your chamber mobile with these fine handles made of Transylvanian hemp and the tucked and buttoned red padded lining will have you snoring until sun down. The hand-painted, one-of-a-kind, whimsical take on a Coptic cross is certain not to offend any version of Goth, vamp or even warm-blood who might have the privilege of actually seeing your private chamber.

It’s hard to let this beautiful treasure go, but we’ve just run out of room. And with all of the sensible people around (see True Blood), we just don’t need to be so private anymore. It can be found and taken for free in the 3400 block of Barranca circle near Mt Bonnell. Better hurry though. It is Big Trash week in our neighborhood.

Cemeteries Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Home is Where the Dead Body Is

Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative
Katie Zezima, New York Times (July 21, 2009)

Tuesday’s New York Times featured a front page article — FRONT PAGE — on people who choose home burials for a deceased love one. Economic concerns are given as a key reason for any upsurge in home burials, because they do tend to be less expensive than traditional funeral services. The contemporary practice of home burial (where the body is kept in a private home so that family and friends can see it before burial or cremation) is not new and it most certainly predates the current economic recession. A strong case can be made that ‘home burials’ are actually a return to a more common 19th and early 20th century funereal practice. That said, I want to focus on the current trend reported by the Times.

In August 2004, for example, Public Television’s POV documentary film series aired a really fantastic home burial documentary entitled A Family Undertaking. The POV documentary follows different groups of families (each with a dying relative) and shows how the home burial is prepared. All of the families involved demonstrate time and time again how the home burial choice is a labor of love.

The fundamentally important part of any home burial is to understand what the local state law says about dead bodies. I say the following with complete sincerity (and as the son of a Funeral Director): most people are capable of handling their own funerals. Here is the most important information to know: 1.) what kinds of permits are required to transport dead bodies, 2.) who signs which pieces of paperwork, and 3.) what the local state law says about the final disposition of the body.

Final disposition is a fancy way of saying burial or cremation or any other legally sanctioned form of dead body disposal. Some states give more time than others for final disposition, it depends. Here is the key: ALL American states put their laws online and it is fairly easy to key word search ‘dead body’ or ‘corpse’ to see what the local law states.

The Times article also suggests that the renewed interest in home burials is another sign of economic stress. I’m not so sure. I agree that home burials do cost less than a full-on funeral home funeral, but I’m not convinced that economics really drives it. Economic concerns might function as a catalyst but it seems to me that many people choose home burial because it feels more meaningful.

I think that a better gauge of economic duress is this: the increase in unclaimed bodies in county morgues. These are situations where the next of kin cannot afford to pay the various burial costs so they leave the body in the morgue and local officials take care of the corpse.

All of this is to say, that as individuals begin to choose more and more varied forms of final disposition we will see increasing funereal variation, such as home burials. On the one hand, I totally understand this practice and support it. On the other hand, I really enjoy the classic 19th century cemeteries found across America and I would never turn away a chance to be buried in one. Quick aside: the New York Times ran a wonderful article a few days ago on the land surveyor at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

The funniest part of the New York Times article is towards the end. It discusses how Maine carpenter Chuck Lakin makes handmade wooden coffins that can also double as bookshelves or display shelves… until death calls.

Chuck Lakin, coffin builder

Just by chance, a friend of mine sent me the following link this week on Coffin Shelves: Furniture for Life (and Death).

Coffin Shelves for Life

I am a total believer in multi-use coffins.