Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mitford Update: Free the Monks!

A week or so back, we whined about the ludicrous caskets in which most Americans wind up buried. Enormous constructions of steel or hardwood, heavy with brass fittings and silk linings, not to mention extras like an adjustable mattress, we complained that they looked like spacecraft on the outside, and bordellos on the inside. (Yes, we are repeating ourselves, just to enjoy the remark).

We proposed a traditional Jewish casket, which is often more simply made and, not incidentally, much less expensive. A kindly reader steered us toward the world of caskets manufactured by monks, several of which are comparably modest (here, here, here). We were impressed.

We were also impressed by the subtext of the discussion, which is that, despite its wicked history, the funeral industry has taken many steps toward honesty and transparency, among which is the comparatively recent phenomenon of price-shopping for caskets. Used to be that they came as part of the package, and could only be purchased from the funeral home -- which was free to jack its rates up as high as it wanted. Laws which created a more of less free market were understandably unpopular with the funeral directors, but a smash success otherwise. They added a dose of competition to the business, and established a new niche for any number of small businesses, ranging from CasketXpress to the good brothers.

Except, of course, in Louisiana.

There, per Fox News, the Benedictine brothers of St. Joseph Abbey, in Tammany Parish, have recently filed suit against the state regulators, asking for the right to continue selling the caskets that they make (some, incidentally, with wood salvaged after Hurricane Katrina).

The Fox story is brief and well-written, so we won't repeat everything. (But more detail here). The bottom line is that the regulations only permit funeral homes to sell or store caskets. The monks aren't licensed funeral directors, and don't want to be. The board that oversees the funeral homes consists of four embalmers, four funeral directors, and "a citizen member at least 60 years old."

The attorney for the abbey says that the board's goal is "to protect the profits of a powerful industry." This is obviously true. The board's attorney says it is "simply enforcing the law that's passed by the Louisiana legislature." This may very well also be true. If so, it's lousy law. It is a lousy law because it creates a monopoly where none needs to exist. It hurts small businesses and prevents entrepreneurship. In this particular case, it also restricts the ability of the Benedictines to pursue their monastic vocation, which includes self-support. (Ora et labora, and all that).

We urge our, ahem, many Louisiana readers to exercise their constitutional right to petition the government. Free the monks!

5 comments:

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

My neighbor is a funeral director. They make an obviously good living, if seeing the improvements in their house, etc. is believing. They also work very hard and got started in their business, in this small town, without debt, through saving before hand and making good, frugal business choices in the beginning. The wife once told me that they were the cheapest in the state. They used to make gravestones, as well as the concrete things (vaults) that surround the casket before it goes in the ground, and they had a flower shop. [Talk about a full service business.] They did this all with just the husband and wife working in the business, working very hard. Still getting to my point: When they were making the vaults, they were selling them for hundreds less than their competitors and still making money, according to the wife. Nobody should work that hard, so they've sold off various parts of the business through the years.

This is a business where you know that there will always be customers, but you can't count on a day to day business. They've told me that each funeral takes about 40 man hours to put together. One summer, they had no funerals for three months. And nobody pays them vacation pay; when they leave town, they have to pay somebody else to stay and take care of things, whether there is a funeral or not.

Well, I'm not defending high funeral costs, but just saying, that like most things, there is always more behind the scenes than we might imagine.

Still like the bordello description. When we were picking out my FIL's casket, none of us could stand the frills and gathers in the satin linings of the caskets. To get away from that, we had to get a much more expensive casket. It was sort of like the clothing at a discount store: cheap bling vs clothing at a upscale store: tailored and refined.

Father Anonymous said...

I want to be clear about this: I've worked with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of funeral directors, and had very few bad experiences. The ones I work most closely with become treasured and trusted colleagues.

Funeral costs are high for many reasons, some of which simply have to do with the things people expect. (Burial plots, especially in urban areas, are scarce). There are cheaper ways to do almost everything, if people want to choose them. In that regard, it's like the wedding industry: people pay for what they have been conditioned to desire, not what they actually need.

My only objection is that sometimes the cheap-but-reasonable option is taken off the table, either by an industry cartel of by a series of dumb laws -- or dumb laws pushed through by an industry cartel.

No, I like funeral directors. And I'll like them even more when they make sure I can be buried in my cheapo homemade pine box.

Anonymous said...

ANYONE SPEAKING TO CREMATION?

Father Anonymous said...

Sure. Anybody who's ever worried about the cost of a funeral has at least considered it. On the other hand, (a) many Christians prefer burial for ceremonial reasons; (b) cremation isn't exactly green; and (c) it isn't quite the moneysaver people hope for - -especially when they wind up burying or interring the ashes anyway. Still, I think it's gaining ground.

Father Anonymous said...

Sure. Anybody who's ever worried about the cost of a funeral has at least considered it. On the other hand, (a) many Christians prefer burial for ceremonial reasons; (b) cremation isn't exactly green; and (c) it isn't quite the moneysaver people hope for - -especially when they wind up burying or interring the ashes anyway. Still, I think it's gaining ground.