Summer or winter, the day begins in hushed darkness. The Cistercian monks of New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa, rise at 3:15 a.m. and walk the unlit limestone corridors to the chapel, where they sing psalms and study scripture. The morning that follows has a certain rhythm: simple breakfast, reading, prayer, all performed in silence. Then they change clothes and quietly cross the road to begin their day’s labor: crafting caskets.
Cistercian monks (also known as Trappists) are called to live by the work of their hands. “The primary purpose of manual labor for a monk is cultivation of interior quiet and mindfulness of God,” explains the Reverend Alberic Farbolin, one of the monks at New Melleray and one of the artisans at Trappist Caskets. In addition to promoting contemplation, building caskets provides an opportunity to minister to others’ suffering.
Before leaving the abbey, each casket is blessed by one of the monks. The names of the persons interred in the caskets are likewise inscribed in a book, which is kept at the abbey and regularly prayed over. Although the monks live sequestered lives, in working on the caskets Farbolin feels connected “with the family who will gather around it,” as well as with all of humanity, united in the mystery of death.
Caskets have been handmade for members of the abbey since it was founded in 1849, but public sales weren’t instated until 1999, when the monks began seeking new ways to support themselves. Now, Trappist Caskets produces an average of 35 caskets a week.
The monks are joined in their labor by lay workers, and on the work floor it can be hard to tell them apart. Dressed similarly in worn clothes powdered with sawdust, the craftsmen share a bearing of concentration and purpose. There is little idle chatter; the only sounds are the hum of the mechanical saws and sanders. Nonetheless, the space feels welcoming. Workers borrow tools from one another with a smile and a nod. Large windows bathe the workspace in natural light. The smell of fresh-cut lumber hangs in the air.
Within the abbey’s property lies a 1,300-acre living forest, thick with red and white oak, black walnut, hard maple, and bitternut hickory trees. Every casket crafted here is made from these trees. The timberland is carefully managed by Bill Haywood, who has a master’s degree in forestry, to ensure the forest’s long-term viability.
“Trees have a natural life span, just like people,” explains Haywood. As part of the abbey’s forest management plan, trees aren’t harvested until they are 100 years old; careful logging practices are employed; and for every casket or urn that is purchased from the monks, a new tree is planted in the forest as a living memorial.
Watching the monks at work in the wood shop brings to mind the adage “in the midst of life we are in death.” In contemplating the living legacy of the forest, though, it’s striking how the reverse is also true—in the midst of death, there is life.
Sarah J. Gardner is the editor of Radish magazine, a publication serving western Illinois, eastern Iowa, and southern Minnesota that is dedicated to the environment, healthy living, and self-renewal. Excerpted from Radish (May 2011).www.radishmagazine.com