Making Ends Meet

Iowa abbey monks craft fine caskets for the recently departed and "pre-Need" customers alike

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Mondays are often hectic in the casket business, and today is no exception. By 10:00 A.M., the company has one premium black walnut casket, a shaped oak and a shaped pine to get out the door. Pickup time is 2:00 P.M., which will be tight. Arturo, Aiden and Paul have to pull the caskets from high warehouse racks, pack them in Styrofoam-lined cardboard boxes, seal the lids with nylon straps, affix bills of lading, and move the merchandise out to the loading dock. With Arturo’s back acting up again, the going could be slow. And at 11:30 A.M. sharp, as usual, the men will drop whatever they’re doing and go to the chapel to pray.

Monks are like that.

Arturo Amos, Aiden Rachford and Paul Andrew Tanner are Trappist monks at New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa, outside Dubuque. Two and a half years ago, the abbey started Trappist Caskets, a venture that is partly an attempt to restore spirituality to the modern way of death and partly a bid to support the monastery’s way of life.

New Melleray, an imposing limestone abbey founded 153 years ago by Irish monks, was once home to as many as 150 adherents but is now down to 38. "We’ve got four guys in their 90s," says Father Brendan Freeman, the abbot, adding that the monks’ average age is 67. The Trappist order, which is Roman Catholic, dates to the mid-1600s, when it arose at a Cistercian monastery in La Trappe, France, and is formally known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The New Melleray monks arise at 3:15 each morning, attend church services seven times daily, refrain from eating meat, and emphasize the dignity of work, which is "the most effective way we can love and serve our brothers and sisters here and now," as one abbey bulletin puts it.

The primary source of outside income for the abbey, which is situated on 3,400 acres, is farming. The monks grow alfalfa, corn, soybeans, potatoes and oats. But as farm revenues fell and healthcare bills rose, the aging Melleray monks turned to one of the most notable and abundant features of their property: trees. Black walnut. Red oak. White oak. Ash. Maple. Pine. The mature hardwoods and softwoods wedged in among the fields constitute the second largest privately owned forest in Iowa.

Over the years, the monks have preserved their forests and even earned an award from the state in 1998 for their woodland management. But now they are harvesting the trees—though carefully, as 74-year-old Brother Placid Zilka demonstrated the other day.

As the abbey’s procurator, he’s responsible for the farm, forest, buildings and grounds. He looks as comfortable in his Iowa farmer’s uniform of jeans, work shirt and billed cap as he is in the white habit, black scapular, leather belt and sandals that he wears as a solemnly professed Trappist.

"See those pines, way up far?" Placid says, pointing through the windshield of the abbey’s 1976 Ford pickup as he steers with his other hand along two muddy ruts that serve as a road. "Right on the horizon in there? I planted those. Those trees are harvestable." We get out of the truck and walk into the forest. Placid spots a young black walnut, a premium wood, right next to a box elder, a tree of no carpentry value that is hogging the sunlight. It’s OK for now, Placid says, because the elder is forcing the walnut to grow straight and tall as it reaches for the light. Eventually the elder will be felled, and the walnut, if properly pruned, may someday fetch a small fortune from a veneer maker.

Placid stops before a mature tree, unfolds a pocketknife and slices into the bark, revealing the chocolate brown color that is the mark of black walnut. He wraps his arms around the trunk in a bear hug to size it up. He doesn’t carry a tape measure. "This would probably be about a $4,000 log," if sold for veneer, he says. "We’ll use its secondary logs for caskets and make a real good return."

Trappist caskets are less ornate and less expensive than commercial models, which often retail for $4,000 or $5,000. The premium Trappist casket, black walnut with raised paneling and mitered corners, costs $1,485. A plain pine box sells for $575. The monks also make coffins, shaped caskets widest at the shoulders. Handles and hinges are sturdy, without ornamentation. Instead of satin, Trappist caskets are lined with white muslin and padded with straw.


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