Ruling a victory for monks, brings end to ‘casket cartel,’ says lawyer

A federal appeals court ruling in favor of Benedictine monks who had been blocked from selling their handmade caskets by Louisiana’s state funeral board “is a victory for the monks as well as for free enterprise and entrepreneurs” in the state, their lawyer said.

“And it puts a nail in the coffin of the casket cartel,” said Darpana Sheth, an attorney with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which represented the monks pro bono in the case.

In a unanimous opinion, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 24 that a five-year battle by the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors to stop the Benedictine monks of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Benedict, La., from selling handmade, cypress caskets was either unconstitutional or unauthorized by Louisiana law.

The only question remaining to be determined by the three-judge appeals court panel was a legal technicality, Sheth told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese. The 5th Circuit asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to determine by January if state law authorized the state funeral board to regulate casket sales.

The law requires any business selling caskets in Louisiana to be a licensed funeral home that employs a funeral director and has a casket showroom. The monks twice had gone to the Louisiana Legislature to amend the law, but those bills never got out of committee, so they filed a lawsuit in 2010.

“The court, out of an abundance of caution, wanted to make sure before it rules on constitutional grounds that the state board could even regulate the sale of caskets when that’s all someone (such as the monks) does,” Sheth said. “In its opinion, the 5th Circuit said very strongly they can’t find any reason to uphold the constitutionality of the law. The court rejected all the arguments put forward by the state board in support of constitutionality.”

“It’s a win-win for us, as well as an answer to our prayers,” said Benedictine Abbot Justin Brown. “It also confirms the feelings we’ve had all along that this was the right thing to do. We had a right to sell our caskets, and the courts are upholding that right.”

The Benedictines of St. Joseph Abbey have made the caskets for decades to bury their brother monks, but public interest in the caskets began in the early 1990s and has grown over the years.

In 2007, the Benedictines launched St. Joseph Abbey Woodworks, headed by Deacon Mark Coudrain, a master woodworker, to begin making caskets to sell to the public.

The Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors presented the monks with “a cease and desist” order, which led to the monks’ ultimately unsuccessful efforts to get recourse from the Legislature and their lawsuit.
In 2011, the monks received a favorable ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval, who struck down the Louisiana law, saying it created an unfair industry monopoly.

The state funeral board appealed to the 5th Circuit, saying the law protected consumers by ensuring that any caskets sold were the right size to fit into Louisiana’s oddly shaped, above-ground crypts.

Deacon Coudrain said he was thrilled that “common sense” had prevailed in the 5th Circuit ruling. The woodworks project turns out about 20 cypress caskets a month, and all the notoriety the casket case has received has helped business.

“It doubled what we thought we would be selling,” Deacon Coudrain told the Clarion Herald. “Right now we’re selling about 20 a month. This is absolutely common sense. Common sense is what drove us to this point to say that this didn’t make any sense and was really an injustice to the monastery.”

The deacon said the support the monks have received across the state has been encouraging.
“Monasteries are not known for suing states, you know?” he said. “We’ve gotten excellent feedback. We’ve had people buy caskets just because they’re so angry that others are trying to stop us. We’ve also gotten a lot of good feedback from funeral directors. A lot of them were very supportive and helped us out.”

Deacon Coudrain said several monks and volunteers were hard at work making the caskets when they got word of the court decision.
“We’re free to pray and to offer prayers of thanksgiving,” Deacon Coudrain said. “We can also pray for those we are making the caskets for. We’re just a bit freer to do that now. That’s what we do when we’re making the caskets — pray for those we are making the caskets for.”

The federal case will be stayed pending an answer from the Louisiana Supreme Court on the question that the 5th Circuit posed. The appeals court set Jan. 22, 2013, as a follow-up deadline.

Complete Article HERE!

Strippers pole-dance to appease the dead

DRESSED in miniskirts barely covering their hips, the two girls took to the neon-lit stage and moved vigorously to the loud pumping pop music. Their job: to appease the wandering spirits.

As the temple facade in the background changed colour from the fireworks lighting up the Taiwanese night sky, the show climaxed with pole-dancing and striptease in front of an audience consisting of men, women and children.

“This is hard work but I need to make a living,” said 18 year-old En En, out of breath after stripping for the crowd during the recent religious festival.

En En had just earned Tw$3000 ($100) for her act, which began on stage, but ended as she mingled with the audience, letting men touch her for tips.

Folk religion in Taiwan is a unique mixture of the spiritual and the earthly, and one of its most remarkable manifestations is the practice of hiring showgirls to perform at festivals, weddings, and even funerals.

The girls work on “electronic flower cars” – specially designed trucks equipped with light and sound equipment that can become a stage, allowing them to travel to performances often held in smaller cities and rural areas.

“The groups attract crowds to our events and they perform for the gods and the spirits to seek blessings,” said Chen Chung-hsien, an official at Wu Fu Temple, a Taoist landmark in north Taiwan’s Taoyuan county.

“They have become part of our religion and folk culture.”

At 26, Chiang Pei-ying is already a veteran performer with nearly 20 years of experience, travelling across Taiwan with her father and two sisters for their family business to entertain audiences – both alive and dead.

A dancer performs during a temple festival in northern Taiwan. Picture: AFP

Ms Chiang made her debut when she was in kindergarten because she liked singing and dancing on stage and has become a celebrity performer with her sisters, charging up to Tw$80,000 for a 20-minute show.

She said she enjoys her line of work, even if she has to deal with some odd requests from customers such as walking around coffins and singing for the deceased at funerals.

“I’ve watched this since I was little so it’s nothing peculiar for me. Performing for the dead is just like performing for the living people,” she said.

“They liked to sing when they were alive and their relatives thought they would have liked to have somebody sing for them in the end. For me, I get good tips and I hope I am accumulating good karma too.”

Other performers, however, make much less money and tend to be more discreet about their job, especially those who still do striptease despite risking arrest.

Stripping nude is rarely seen in public now because it is a criminal offence, but partial stripping is still performed at festivals, private parties and funerals, people in the business say.

“Some people like going to hostess clubs, so when they pass away their relatives arrange striptease to reflect their interests while they were alive,” said Chiang Wan-yuan, Pei-ying’s father and a 30-year veteran in the business.

It is difficult to imagine a similar show going on outside a European village church, and some local critics have dismissed the practice, which emerged in the 1970s, as shocking and vulgar.

Others, however, see it as a natural extension of a traditional folk culture lacking in the sharp separation of sex and religion often seen in other parts of the world.

Marc Moskowitz, an anthropologist at the University of South Carolina, said the practice evolved out of the special Chinese concept of “hot and noisy”, which brims with positive connotations.

“In traditional Chinese and contemporary Taiwanese culture this signifies that for an event to be fun or noteworthy it must be full of noise and crowds,” said Mr Moskowitz, who shot a documentary “Dancing for the Dead” in 2011.

He added most people who watched his work appeared to enjoy it and recognise this practice as an “interesting and unique cultural phenomenon,” which to his knowledge is only found in Taiwan.

“As I watched these performances I came to appreciate the idea of celebrating someone’s life to help assuage the feelings of grief,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!

Cemetery Art – 9/04/12

Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh NC 

Sit for a Spell- Three

One grand great life throbs through earth’s giant heart,
And mighty waves of single Being roll
From nerve-less germ to man, for we are part
Of every rock and bird and beast and hill,
One with the things that prey on us, and one with what we kill.

                                                                                              — Oscar Wilde, Panthea