March 13, 2009

Unto dust

Unto dust

One morning near the end of my week at Southern Monastery, I walked through the church and saw what looked like a simple wooden casket -- shallow and open, with handles on the sides and some folded white cloths on the bottom -- resting near the big cross in the back of the church. A Lenten decoration, I thought to myself. How nice.

Another group of retreatants had come, stayed for three nights, and left, mostly in silence. The retreat house was again empty. A bus had arrived that morning with a group of elderly people, but they were day visitors. They spent their time in the bookstore or the bonsai shop; they wandered the grounds in the sun. This group weren't observing silence. They'd say hello to me when we passed on the paths and ask where I was from. After six days of silence, it felt strange to talk again.

After the bus left and I was walking back through the church, I saw that the open wooden casket had been moved up close to the altar. There was a body in it. An old man, dressed in monastic robes with sturdy black shoes sticking straight up. Other monks were sitting around the casket in silence.

I slipped past and through the door into the retreat house. When I looked out the window towards the enclosure, I could see two old men, dressed in workclothes, digging a grave in the monks' cemetery. They were using a couple of shovels and wheelbarrow. The mound of red dirt kept growing higher and higher.

I went down to the kitchen to get a cup of raspberry tea and found the housekeeper.

"You're still here?" she asked in surprise.

I explained that I had come by airplane and wouldn't be leaving until the morning. "You should come to the funeral," she said. "It's closed to the public, but you're staying here. It's at 4:30 pm."

The Funeral Mass was in the big church with slanting blue light making patterns on the floor. It was attended by the community of monks, 43 of them. And a bunch of priests who had driven in. A handful of old women (relatives, I'm told) dressed in dark clothes. The housekeeping staff. And me. The monks and priests were dressed in cream-coloured robes with purple stoles. I was dressed a bit informally, in jeans and a bright red fleece, which is pretty much what I'd worn all week because it's what I had with me.

A monk gave a little talk about Brother Clarence. He was born in 1923, became a priest in 1950, and became a Cistercian in 1969. The monk giving the talk said, "Brother Clarence had the gift of taking something simple and making it complex." The other monks laughed.

After living in community for so many years, it must be like losing a family member. The monks chanted and sang. They sprinkled the body with holy water and sent big puffs of incense into the air. As we went up for communion, we all walked right past the body, and several of the monks reached over to pat Brother Clarence's hands as they passed.

At the end of the service, six of the monks lifted the casket, using the wooden handles on the side, and carried it outside, using the door near the altar. We followed them to the little graveyard nestled up against the building. They sang as they walked. Then a monk folded the white cloth over Brother Clarence's face.

Long strips of cloth, almost like belts to a bathrobe, were attached to the white cloth he was wrapped in. The monks lifted the body out of the casket, using the long strips of cloth, carried him over to the hole that had been dug, and lowered him in. Then each monk took a turn shoveling red dirt into the grave.

Afterwards, we were all invited to the crypt for food. I don't think there are funerals in any tradition that don't include food. We stood around chatting, balancing plates of fruit and sandwiches, cups of iced tea. I hung out with the housekeeping staff.

An old monk said to me, "When Clarence was dying, I told him he had to send us a replacement." I smiled and said, "Hey, I've got three sons." I know a whole lot of young men, actually, but it's hard to imagine any of them becoming a monk. I wonder what will happen to monasteries after this generation of monks dies.

Later, when I walked back through the church to take an evening walk, I noticed two of the monks carrying the wooden casket. They were putting it back into the storage closet until they needed it again.


YourFireAnt said...

Very well told, Jo(e). Interesting and full.


Leslie F. Miller said...

Thanks for the story. Moving.

Songbird said...

I love this story, jo(e).

Rana said...


heidi said...


BlackenedBoy said...

You are such a special person, Jo(e). What an intimate thing to witness and be a part of.

Mom2BJM(Amy) said...

I've enjoyed reading about your trip jo(e) - what a fulfilling time you seem to have had. I rarely have an hour of silence.. you had a whole week!

Anonymous said...

I'm on a catch up so please forgive me for only commenting on this post - it seems rude when you've put so much effort into writing them!

It sounds like you've been having a very lovely week. As always your writing makes me feel like I'm in the room with you and the pictures are beautiful. I particularly like your shadow on the lake.

A week of silence sounds delicious.

joanna said...

Whenever I need inspiration, I come to your blog. What a post! Hope you're feeling better!

Magpie said...

Really cool story, well told. Thank you.

The Simpleton said...

I love that they reuse the casket. I wonder if I have to live a monastic life in order to buried that way in Georgia.