Making Ends Meet

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

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New Melleray monks, because they spend most of their time praying, studying or attending church, have only about five and a half hours a day to make caskets. They’ve had to hire several laypeople to keep production going, but the monks still do everything from milling the lumber to stapling casket upholstery. The woodshop is in a 100-year-old wood-framed building with tall windows located a few hundred yards from the abbey through a stand of pines. Waste is unheard of. Scrap wood is made into small furniture, crosses and clocks, which are for sale in the abbey gift shop. Odds and ends go into the wood chipper to make heating fuel, and sawdust is spread around the trees for mulch.

The business got off to a rocky start when the monks distributed the caskets through funeral homes, which tended not to push the monks’ low-priced fare. Now they rely on word of mouth and sell directly to consumers through their Web site, Orders come from "pre-need" (industry jargon for "alive") customers as well as "need" customers. Clients have included several bishops and Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles (pre) and a prominent peace negotiator in Ireland (need). For people ordering in advance who want the casket on hand, the monks will, upon request, fit it with shelves—the "book casket," originally ordered by a priest who "wants to enjoy his casket from this side of eternity," says the abbey newsletter. The other day, Sam Mulgrew, a layman and the company’s business manager, got a rush order for a casket to be sent to Wrangell, Alaska, a town inaccessible by road. It arrived there by air charter. No Trappist casket has ever been late for a funeral.

Though the casket venture brings in money for the abbey, it also reflects Trappist beliefs and practices, which include an abiding awareness of death as a sacred, not-to-be-feared part of life. "Keep death before one's eyes daily," says one of the strictures of the 1,500-year-old Rule of Saint Benedict, which governs the monks' lives.

A few steps outside the abbey walls is the monks' own cemetery, where graves are marked by neat rows of iron crosses, about 150 in all. "There’s a close connection between life and death," Father Brendan says. "I like to walk out there occasionally and just go from grave to grave. There's Father Shawn's cross, and Brother Fabian, and Brother Hilary, and Father Richard. Father Maurus and Brother George. My memories of them come back as I stand there." Then he visits the founders' graves. "There's Brother Ambrose out there, some of these guys who came over from Ireland in 1849. I kind of imagine what they might have been like. In a certain sense, we owe this whole place to these guys."

As it happens, they were each lowered into the ground in accordance with Trappist tradition, as Father Brendan himself expects to be—on an uncovered wooden platform, and not in a casket at all.


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