Trappist monks and their anointed caskets
Isn’t it a shame that we have made death so dreaded, so mournful, so black?
It doesn’t have to be that way, if our lives — and deaths — are enfolded by the blessings of God.
This can even extend, perhaps, to the way one is buried — finds a final “resting place” for the physical body (which upon death we so quickly transcend).
It was Sam Mulgrew, a cattle rancher in northeastern Iowa, who came up with the idea.
Interested in forest conservation, he had embarked on the chore of “weeding” out certain trees on his land to allow for more sun and air and better overall growth but as a conservationist, didn’t want to see those trees go to waste.
This was when he came up with the notion: to use the trees to make wood caskets, like in the older, simpler days.
“I had a friend who died and remembered the garish, poorly-made, commercial casket that was so unreflective of his personality,” Mulgrew told us. “I thought there must be one that was more organic — one tastefully made and more symbolizing the simplicity and truthfulness of that person.”
That was in 1996.
Next door to him was 3,400 acres of agricultural land and forest owned by Trappist monks at New Melleray — monks who for 150 years had been eking out their sustenance by farming but who, with the increased competition of mega-farms and for other reasons, figured they soon would have to turn to another means of income.
They had beautiful trees, including walnut, on their property; this part of Iowa is known, in fact, for the highest quality walnut in the United States.
And so Sam approached the monks, who not only showed interest (this was 1999) but started doing just this almost immediately.
There are now 35 monks on the premises (at this monastery’s height, there had been well over a hundred), half of them priests, and — however macabre it may initially sound — they set about on this new vocation of fashioning old-world-style coffins of various types that are not only nature-friendly (something very important to these monks, as well as to Mulgrew), but reasonably priced ($1,000 to $3,200, where comparable commercial ones can cost as much as $10,000). Mulgrew began working with them full-time soon after they started making them. They also manufacture cremation urns. (About half of all Americans now choose cremation, though the figure is lower for Catholics.)
“Our prices are much less expensive and people recognize the richness and price,” says Sam, whom we became aware of when the abbey began taking ads and announcements on Spirit Daily. “The idea was of a simple, plain pine box (in addition to walnut, oak, cherry, and understated pine) to appeal to that kind of sensibility. Some people want to make their final statement in this type of a product. And the general area of northeast Iowa has the best walnut in America.”
The monks seek only enough to sustain their vocations (half their time is spent in meditation and prayer; these are the monks who used to exercise a rule of silence — not speaking; they don’t fund-raise) and any funds beyond what’s needed are donated to charity. We’ve known other Trappists who make cheese, fruitcake, and even bourbon fudge (and used to do their own dentistry!).
“Their work is prayer,” Sister Mary Bendyna, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, told The New York Times some years back. “They’re not interested in making a lot of money, just enough to sustain themselves. So typically, they produce a product — raising sheep, making candy, building caskets — that can be done in-house.”
It’s not just making old-fashioned wood caskets; it’s the prayer that goes into them: Each is blessed, and the name of the deceased for whom it is used is registered and a tree is planted in that person’s name (to be harvested sometime in the future; (normally that’s in seventy or more years).
They now make more than 2,000 caskets a year. A Mass is said for each person and his or her name inscribed in a memorial book.
It’s not a subject many like to talk or think about, but there is an uplifting quality to death — when it’s handled the correct way, when we are prepared for it, when it is holy.
A holy death is a joyful one.
It is to be celebrated.
With holiness, a sorrowful event — a death — is turned into a more blessed one. Of course, it goes far beyond caskets and burial methods. “It’s a wonderful thing that monks are participating in people’s lives like this,” notes Mulgrew — so comforting to know monks are saying Mass for loved ones, having inscribed their names (relatives often visit to see this) and planting that tree.
Handled properly — and spiritually prepared for — death should be the most blessed event of our lives, or at least tied with birth.
When it is, mourning is less, sometimes non-existent; joy is where we create it through prayer and sacrifice.