The first funeral I attended was my grandmother’s. She died unexpectedly and my family flew from California to Minnesota for the service. My sharpest memory of that day is following her casket down the aisle as we left the church. I was mortified that my family and I, eyes red from sobbing, had to face the congregants who’d gathered in the pews to honor my grandmother. I couldn’t really believe that the bawdy, book-loving outdoorswoman I loved was in that shiny box.
I’ve been to many funerals and visitations since then and watched other families trail behind their loved one’s caskets. Only once did I ever notice the casket itself — a pine box lovingly crafted by a family friend. Its simplicity, and knowing it was made by hand, gave it a resonance that made me look twice — it was the first time I recall thinking that a casket seemed just right.
These memories came back to me during a visit to the 150-year-old New Melleray Abbey near Peosta, Iowa. Since 1999, when the Federal Trade Commission passed a consumer protection law enabling clients to bring their own flowers, food, and caskets to a funeral home, rather than having to purchase them from the home, the monks have used the wood from their forest to create Trappist Caskets.
Sam Mulgrew, general manager of Trappist Caskets, showed me around the building where the caskets are made and sold. It’s across the road from the monastery, which at its population height in 1950 housed 135 monks of the Cistercian Trappist order. Mulgrew says though today that number is far fewer — around 40 — New Melleray is a healthy, vital community. I asked him why the monks chose this unusual means of support.
“The Trappists‘ mandate is to live by the labor of their hands,” says Mulgrew. “They don’t fundraise or run schools or hospitals. They live a self-contained life of prayer. Making caskets is a good psychological and spiritual fit. Death is about moving on, going to a different place, and the monks spend a lot of time thinking about these things. These caskets reflect the quiet, simple life led by the monks and allows them to offer a part of their lives symbolically. It is a good fit in the material sense, too, as they have a 1200-acre hardwood forest that supplies them with the raw materials.”
The caskets were originally made in the old farm buildings that dot the monastery grounds. But uneven floors, inadequate heating and cooling, and other health and safety issues made it difficult to produce enough caskets to meet demand. Four years ago they constructed a building of the same honey-colored limestone as the monastery across the road, and here they produce caskets and urns in a modern workshop.
“The monks don’t live to make caskets,” says Mulgrew. “Making caskets enables them to live the life they’ve chosen.”
That life includes a regimented daily schedule focused on prayer, work, and study that is based on the Rule of St. Benedict. The monks rise at 3:15 each morning and gather seven times throughout the day for prayer, as well as engage in silent, reflective prayer. While some monks produce caskets, others cook, do electrical and plumbing work, and take care of accounting and reservations for the eighteen rooms the monastery offers to visitors for contemplative retreats.
The monks who make caskets work alongside hired employees, and on a walk through the workshop it was impossible to tell who was a monk and who lives in town. While no radios blared classic rock, the sound of saws largely disguised the quiet and the only clue that this was not your average shop were the crucifixes and religious icons on the walls. Mulgrew pointed out an area above the main work floor where novices — monks undergoing the discernment process — worked in solitude and silence.
“We’re not an automated shop in the way that a contemporary cabinet factory is,” says Mulgrew, who greeted workers by name as we moved about the shop floor. “We rely on a lot of workmanship. Each board is examined to determine whether it would be best used as a panel or a rail. There’s more focus and attention to detail than in a high-volume industry. We don’t try to hide our joinery with trim work as is done with caskets that are quickly trimmed. Making a casket is a slow process — it takes from eight to eighteen hours. There are cheaper ways to make them, but for us it’s about the process. Our approach to woodworking is very integrated with everything else in the monk’s life and the work is done with the end use in mind.”
Annually, the organization sells about 1,600 caskets and 500 urns to devout Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Activist and statesman Sargent Shriver was buried in a Trappist Casket, as was scientist James Van Allen. The monks supplied a casket for the burial of Christina Green, the Arizona girl killed by the gunman who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. “At our discretion, we donate children’s caskets,” says Mulgrew. “Many families do pay for them, but we have a fund that people can donate to, to support those who aren’t able to pay.”
While Trappist Caskets are simple — there are four basic models in four types of wood: cherry, pine, oak, and walnut — there is an increased interest in customization. A section of the workshop is devoted to laser engraving and plaques with the deceased’s name, birth and death dates etched and affixed to caskets and urns. Crosses with the name of the deceased, often made from the same wood as the casket, can be constructed as keepsakes for family members. Trappist Caskets has an affiliation with Notre Dame University and the Knights of Columbus and crafts caskets with the appropriate organizational insignia. Clients from around the country order caskets and urns — during my visit three caskets were loaded into a truck for the 100-mile drive to Decorah, Iowa, and others awaited air shipment to the East and West coasts.
While some caskets are sold on a “pre-need” basis, around 200 more are kept in ready inventory. The monks pray over each casket and urn before they are shipped, and for each one sold a tree is planted in the carefully managed monastery forest. The monks conduct a mass in remembrance of the deceased and each name is entered in a memorial prayer book.
“There is a deep sacramental component to our business,” Mulgrew says.
The goal of Trappist Caskets is not unceasing expansion, but to provide sustenance for monastery life. The Abbot, Father Brendan Freeman, notes in his introduction to the monastery’s history that, since it was founded, New Melleray Abbey has stood apart from the world around it. “America has always been a society driven by money. A monastery sinking roots deep into Iowa soil aspires to a different dream, a different set of values. We do not try to compete with what drives our culture. We avoid politics, industry, and involvement in movements. We are simply here in this one dear place to pray for all the people and to praise God.”
A different dream, a different set of values, enabled by caskets.