David G. Spielman: Guest blogger. Assignment: 3 – Abbey of Saint Joseph. Location: Covington, LA. Equipment: M9.

Tucked away in the piney woods across Lake Pontchatrain from New Orleans, just North of Covington, Louisiana is the Abbey of Saint Joseph. St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College of the Benedictine Order has been in existence since 1891 — a beautiful and peaceful campus.

The Monks have been making caskets for over one hundred years here. On their own property by their own hands they make coffins in a remote corner of the grounds. Working just a couple of days during the week the Monks and a few loyal volunteers masterfully craft pine or cypress wood into elegant yet very simple burial vessels in line with their teaching and beliefs.

What strikes you first when entering the workshop is how clean and well laid out the building is. At the same time you feel the quiet and serenity of the place. You become aware of their monastic life and their teaching and you see it at once in their work. Once you begin talking with those working you realize that isn’t just a commercial venture but an avocation of their religious beliefs. Helping people at a difficult time achieve a peaceful passage of the death of a loved one. No fancy showroom, no high-pressured, guilt driven sales pitch. Just some simple questions asked with compassion and concern.

Continuing my conversations I came to learn that two of the volunteers are retired, a law enforcement officer and postal worker who both are serious wood workers. Certainly their skills could be better used in a more commercial and lucrative venture but they find great pleasure working and helping the Monks. There in the pine tree woods, with cathedral music playing, this band of men builds from start to finish coffins. Not only do they cut, plane, sand, varnish and assemble the wood. They fit the hinges, line and prepare the interiors. When the work is done there is an amazing simple example of what creative and caring hands can do.

Who could or would find fault with this, apparently the Louisiana Undertakers have. According to state law no one but them are supposed to be allowed to sell a casket or coffin. Of course their products are considerably more expensive and aren’t made with the same care and concern given by the Monks and their friends. So now the Monks and Abbey are involved in a lawsuit, which threatens to jail their Abbot. According to the Undertakers the Monks aren’t allowed to make a living to further their life or teachings. The casket making operation is one of the several ways that the Monastery generates funds to cover their expenses and operate their Seminary. It is also part of their mission to comfort and care for those who have died. They have a cemetery on part of the property as well. So the Louisiana Undertakers don’t want to allow the Monks to build caskets for their parishioners. Feels like the “bad old days” of Louisiana politics.

I hope you can see and feel the serenity in my images. Using my M9 working respectfully I hope I have represented them and their story. No whirring motor or flashing strobe I was able to move about without much notice. Trying not to disturb their concentration and devotion. This is without a doubt the reason why I shoot Leica. I become part of the scene and don’t draw attention to myself or what I’m doing. I am an observer and that is what I want to be so that I can tell this compelling and interesting story.

-David G. Spielman

This is a guest blog post from David G. Spielman an independent photographer who has traveled the world on assignments and personal work that have taken him to six of the seven continents. His work is varied. His corporate clients include many Fortune 500 companies and many smaller, local and international concerns. Projects in Ireland, Moscow, Central America and Asia have given Spielman the opportunities to travel the world and shoot images of globe leaders and many exciting and wonderful places. Two books have been published of his work. To see more of Spielman’s work you can visit his website http://davidspielman.com/.