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.
It has been one week since President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden was dead. I happened to be in New York City when the announcement was made so I immediately began taking stock of the entire situation. Within the annals of infamous dead bodies (Eva Peron, Hitler, Che Guevara, Mao, Lenin, etc.) Bin Laden’s corpse is an important specter for twenty-first century human history. I began collecting news articles on what exactly happened to Bin Laden’s dead body since I knew that controversy was sure to follow.
My first inkling that something was askew came on Monday morning when National Public Radio reported that Bin Laden received a sea burial with full Muslim funeral rites. I’m not a Muslim burial rites specialist but at no time have I ever read about a Muslim burial at sea. The Death Reference Desk has certainly covered contemporary (mostly American) Muslim burial practices and you can read that information here. But even the most contemporary, American Muslim traditions still hew to much older Islamic funeral traditions.
Over the course of last week much back and forth ensued over what exactly happened to Bin Laden’s dead body and how, if at all, it conformed to Islamic funeral practices. Slate.com’s Explainer column posted one of the first good pieces on the entire concept: Bin Laden Sleeps With the Fishes. Central to what occurred was a choice by US Government Officials (I can only assume that this starts with President Obama) that burying Bin Laden anywhere would be problematic. This is a point that many people discussed so I won’t belabor it.
There is one place, however, that I imagine could be used for a “proper” burial and that is Guantanamo Bay. But even mentioning that scenario would create global havoc. That said, I bet money that Gitmo got mentioned by someone and then quickly passed over.
As a result, Osama Bin Laden’s dead body got put in the ocean because the United States wanted to get rid of it. I don’t think that the narrative is much more complicated than that. The use of Muslim funeral rites are nice but what happened to Bin Laden’s body was not a particularly Muslim burial.
Here’s the rub: that might not be a problem. In Sunday’s New York Times, Vanderbilt University history professor Leor Halevi wrote an a particularly good op/ed piece on this very topic, linked at the top of the page. Halevi’s article is the best that I have come across to date. Here’s the crux:
Bin Laden’s religious status is a matter of contention among Muslims. On one end of the spectrum are Muslims who consider him an outsider to Islam: if not quite an apostate, a terrorist whose right to an official Muslim prayer is debatable at best. (In 2005 the Islamic Commission of Spain essentially excommunicated Bin Laden, arguing that he should not be treated as a Muslim.) They must find it as perplexing as I do that the United States government granted the man it identified not as a Muslim, but as a “mass murderer of Muslims,” the dubious honor of a quasi-Islamic funeral.
On the other end are Muslims who believe that Bin Laden is now enjoying the blessings of martyrdom. From a theological perspective, it matters little to them how Americans on the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson disposed of the corpse.
Which is all to say that Bin Laden’s burial was doctrinally irrelevant to some Muslims, and confusing to others. Most of the rest feel uneasy. Perhaps the United States could not have avoided that. But a deeper understanding of the history of Islam’s sacred law could have prevented us from seeming so at sea.
Here is what I know for sure: by the middle of this coming week everyone in America will be talking about something else and that over time conversations will come and go, mostly amongst academics, on whether or not Osama Bin Laden got a proper funeral.
The more immediate political question focuses on whether or not the photo(s) of Bin Laden’s dead body should be released. This question, too, will go away by the middle of the week. The photos were not released now but they will surface in the future. How soon is an open question but we will eventually see the images.
The On The Media program at the top has several good radio segments on Bin Laden, his dead body, and the future of his memory.
I have a hunch that Meg, Kim, and I will be discussing Osama Bin Laden’s dead body again in the near future since America has a long history of dealing with the infamous dead and in ways that keep those infamous dead bodies very much alive.
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…
Last week on the Death Reference Desk I wrote about American Muslims washing the dead body before a funeral. A friend from graduate school, Jakki, saw the post and sent me a fantastic PBS segment on the Jewish tradition of washing the dead. Jakki summed up postmortem body washing for both Islam and Judaism this way: “Jews do the same (another example of our common heritage).” And she is absolutely correct. Indeed, of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) it is the Christian Church which has moved the furthest away from washing the dead body. There are many, many historical reasons for the move away from body washing and I have a hunch that the practice might return.
Until that time, however, the contemporary practice of corpse washing falls mostly to Muslims and Jews. Check out the video linked above, and as with last week’s Muslim body washing post, note the combination of both traditional prayer and public health required protective gear.
A funeral director in Rochester, New York, counteracts the community sadness and frustration of clients brought to his services through violence with a series of billboards in English and Spanish. The message couldn’t be more direct: “Stop the guns, drugs and violence, or be our next guest.”
From the article,
Hemphill put up the billboards because he’s tired of violence. “This is the last stop. Either you’re going to be in jail, or you’re going to be in a funeral home. You can be a guest, seeing the friend, or you can be the one laid out.”
Whether actually effective in preventing deaths or gaining customers who are charmed or appreciative of the efforts, such PSA-style PR certainly gets funeral homes attention (see also the similar Don’t Drink and Drive and Don’t Text and Drive campaigns).
Modern human migration has created a real dilemma for the first, second, and third generations of immigrant children. When a relative dies, many of these young people will be called upon to handle the funeral ceremonies for the deceased. Yet, the individuals involved (most of whom will be adults by that time) don’t have a good idea about what they are supposed to do. What is the current funeral ritual? I have encountered this situation in both America and the United Kingdom. Indeed, funeral directors in both countries explain that children of immigrants often ask the funeral directors (who are thoroughly local) what to do at the funeral. As always, a good funeral director will know the answer.
Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a first person essay by a Muslim-American woman who was called upon to wash the body of her deceased relative. The article really quite moving. I have to say that this particular essay is one of the most interesting pieces on modern American funerals that I have read in a long time. I was particularly struck by how the author captured the mixing of traditional Muslim postmortem preparations with public health requirements, i.e., the wearing of latex gloves and face shields while washing the deceased.
I was also impressed by Reshma Memon Yaqub’s full on admission that she wasn’t entirely sure what to do but knew that she was supposed to do it.
A public awareness campaign for drunk driving meets cheeky morbidity in Rome, Georgia. Here citizens can sign a contract at McGuire, Jennings and Miller Funeral Home stating they intend to drive after drinking or doing drugs on New Year’s Eve. Those who die will receive a free funeral, including a casket, grave site, body preparation and limousine (and perhaps a pre-revelry visit from the police?).
Unfortunately the offer is not extended to those killed by impaired drivers — nor has anyone taken them up on the offer. We guess it’s the thought (and publicity) that counts.
Have a happy and safe New Year’s, everybody!
<3 Death Ref
With its excess of murders and dearth of death practitioner regulation, Guatemala is home to “mobile morticians,” chasing ambulances and staking out city morgues to be the first to pounce on mostly low-income, grieving relatives. They’ve even earned a deathly moniker: “calaqueros,” or skullmongers, as seen holding the umbrella below, patiently waiting for a wallet to arrive.
Not only will they track you down in disturbing, often offensive ways, including paying the police to tip them off, skullmongers set up shop wherever possible, including auto body shops: caskets sold up front, corpses disemboweled and embalmed in back among the engine blocks.
This seems to drive costs down (at least?)… but back-alley embalming can’t be far behind. See the AP story (linked at top) for a number of additional photos.
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.
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.
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.
Here in Portland, OR, one of the largest hand-painted murals in the United States is being dedicated tomorrow—and it’s on the side of a mausoleum—in my neighborhood!
The 50,000 square foot hand-painted wildlife mural on the side of Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home is being dedicated tomorrow, Friday, October 2 and will include a rooftop tour as part of the ceremonies. On Saturday, October 3, the Audubon Society of Portland will lead a hike through Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge for an up-close look at the mural.
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.