Making Ends Meet

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

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.

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 website. 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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