Monks’ ministries respect ecology, the deceased

Among the corporal works of mercy, bury the dead could seem the most challenging. It is certainly not a literal calling for many, albeit a necessary one.

But religious communities peppered across the United States are quietly taking up the Church’s request to bury the dead in a very practical manner — and one that dovetails perfectly with the environmental aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’.

Whether a “green” cemetery plot or a handmade, biodegradable coffin, monasteries are taking a modern-day approach to the Church’s mandate, one that offers financial support while ministering to the outside world.

The Monastery of the Holy Spirit’s story begins in 1944 when 21 Trappist monks from the Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky trekked into the rural town of Conyers, Georgia, to begin their own community. Despite a miniscule Catholic presence in the region, their numbers have since grown to more than 40 monks, according to their website.

By April 2008, the monastery had set aside 70 acres of wetlands, streams and native hardwood forests on their property for a unique conservation project. Honey Creek Woodlands was turned into a natural burial ground, or a “green cemetery.” Bodies are buried in simple decomposable pine coffins or a shroud, a practice both eco-friendly to the conserved land and less expensive for families.

Brother Callistus Crichlow, the public relations and development administrator at the monastery, said their Trappist traditions aren’t rooted in the charism of burying the dead. “The primary focus here is a life of contemplation,” he said.

The burial ground project nevertheless is crucial to the community; it helps in their land conservation initiatives and also serves as a financial resource as well as a ministry to the general public.

“[We] see this as a witness of our monastic life,” Brother Callistus said. “We are very happy to be involved in this as a sign of our respect for the earth and all creation as well as our reverence of the dignity of human life from beginning to its natural end. For us, this is a celebration of life.”

Prayers for the dead

The monks live their monastic call without interruption despite their quickly growing burial business. The community decided at the project’s conception to not attend any funerals so as not to distract from their focus on a life of solitude, prayer and contemplation. However, the monks are not oblivious to the poignant moments unfolding mere acres away.

“We are very conscious of their presence there,” Brother Callistus said of the interred.

So much so, in fact, that the monks remember them daily during their seven prayer times. For anyone who wishes it, the name of a deceased loved one is added to a “perpetual enrolment” prayer list, which can be a great comfort to families.

“They know that their loved ones will be prayed for in-perpetuity by the monks,” Brother Callistus said.

While the monks fulfill their vocation, the man behind the physical operation is Joe Whittaker, caretaker of the green cemetery on the Honey Creek Woodlands.

Whittaker has been at the monastery since January 2008 when the project first launched. Unknown to each other, both Whittaker and the monks had reached out to a conservation group featured on an NPR spot about green cemeteries. Although loathe to move to Georgia, Whittaker agreed to a visit to ascertain if the portion of land the monks were eyeing for a burial ground was suitable. It was — and eight years and a move later, he noted with a laugh, he’s still there.

The job “brought together two things I am passionate about: green burial and monasteries,” he said.

Since the combination of green burials (a relatively new movement) and monasteries is unusual, Whittaker says the cemetery pulls at least 10-15 percent of its families from out of state. While most American burials take place within 20 miles of where the deceased last lived, more than 50 percent of Honey Creek Woodlands clientele come from much farther away.

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A family member throws flowers onto the casket of a loved one following a graveside prayer service at Honey Creek Woodlands Cemetery in Conyers, Ga. Courtesy photo

Most families bring a member of the clergy with them to preside over the services, but the ratio of Catholic to non-Catholic burials is a surprising 70-30 percent. Not limited to locals or Catholics, the cemetery espouses ecumenism at its best. As news of the green cemetery on monastic property has spread, the number of graves has increased to almost 670. The 70 original acres have since increased to 120. Some plots are even multigenerational.

Brother Callistus admitted to once “breaking the rule” of monastic-no-shows at funeral services. The day has remained etched in his memory. After deciding to feature the new ministry in their newsletter, Brother Callistus attended one of the first funerals on the property. This particular burial, he reminisced, took place under a canopy of pine trees with butterflies floating about.

Most striking to him was that before the funeral took place, the family came together to create a patchwork quilt. The body was then lovingly wrapped in the quilt’s embrace before it was lowered in the grave.

“It was almost mystical,” Brother Callistus said of the experience. “It was really so connected, so focused.”

‘Balm to grieving hearts’

Whittaker also helped Holy Spirit’s sister monastery, Our Lady of the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, establish a green burial ground. Cool Spring Natural Cemetery has a twofold purpose.

“[I]t is an extension of our growing awareness, supported by Pope Francis’ recent pronouncements on the subject, of the need to be ecologically responsible in the way we manage and protect the monastery’s 1,200 acres of beautiful property along the Shenandoah River,” said Father Joseph Wittstock, the cemetery manager. “Natural burials allow for the interment of the deceased in a manner which honors both the dignity of the person and the land on which we live. The second and more practical purpose of our cemetery is to aid our ability to be economically self-sufficient — something that St. Benedict advocates in his holy rule.”

Similar to their sister monastery, the community in Virginia does not participate in the actual burial services so as not to disturb the nature of their cloistered life. But the families and those buried there are integral to their community.

“So many who visit the cemetery and its environs speak of a tangible peace that they encounter, often a balm to grieving and otherwise inconsolable hearts,” Father Wittstock said. “I like to think that some of this peace is the fruit of our monastic commitment and that our otherwise hidden and obscure life and vocation is bearing fruit and touching the lives of those who visit us.”

Plain, wooden caskets

Some states away, in southern Indiana, St. Meinrad Archabbey offers another key component to a funeral: wooden caskets.

Father Adrian Burke said the first funeral at the Benedictine monastery, founded in 1854, was for a monk who died within that year. The monks do not bury their members in a vault but rather in a white pine casket, “sanded smooth, but simple.”

The beauty of the caskets, made with local wood, eventually drew attention from people outside of the community who began asking the monks if they could purchase them. Thus their business was born. For about 15 years, St. Meinrad’s meticulously handcrafted, yet inexpensive, coffins have proven a profitable side business for the community.

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A craftsman works on a casket that will be sold by the monks at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. Courtesy photo

“We started the business because we knew there would be a market for it,” Father Burke said.

Since the caskets are plain wood, they, like the cemeteries, are very eco-friendly. Similarly, the monks don’t provide the actual labor themselves but contract small shops to build the caskets off-site. “Our hope, our dream, is one day to build them here; to move the manufacturing on-site,” Father Burke said.

The monks take care of designs, marketing, delivery and follow-up. Father Burke ensures that after each burial, the family who purchased the casket receives a package of bereavement materials. Then, every few months for the next year, the families receive a mailed card.

“I personally write them a note that we are praying for them,” Father Burke said. “We see this as a ministry. It’s not just selling something to someone to make money.”

The maxim “bury the dead,” according to Father Burke, comes from the Hebrew tradition. In a typically pagan culture, a peasant would be thrown on a trash heap. Such a practice was abhorrent to pious Jews, who buried their dead. The practice was in turn absorbed by Christians, who saw the body as created in the image and likeness of God.

The bravery of those who risked much to recover the bodies of those martyred in the arena highlights the respect that was accorded to the human body.

“The early graves of the Christian martyrs were quickly revered as shrines,” Father Burke said.

Like the other monks in Georgia and Virginia, Father Burke sees St. Meinrad’s work as a powerful witness to their community and the world at large. Even a simple, handcrafted coffin can bespeak to the eternal mysteries of life and death.

“When you see a person lying in it, it just says something powerful about the dignity of the person whose remains are there,” he said.

Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.

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