Monday, March 3, 2014

"Remember You are Dust": Lenten Lessons from a Monastic Funeral

Warning: At the very end of this post is a graveside photograph that some may find disturbing.

It was a surprise to enter the Abbey's church and see a body lying on the floor.  The body of the monk was lying, in fact, on a bier.  He was dressed in a pure white cowl, and his face bore no signs of having been made up by a mortician.  Br. Harold did not look like he was sleeping; no one could say, "He looks so peaceful, almost like he's sleeping".  No, he looked like what he was - dead.

But Br. Harold was not alone.  Two monks sat at his head and solemnly prayed the psalms, psalms that Br. Harold knew so well from decades of praying the divine offices.  The monks of the community took turns praying the psalms with Br. Harold one last time, and would do so right up to the moment of his funeral mass.

When the time came for his funeral, Br. Harold was carried closer to the altar and placed directly in front of it.  There was no casket, and Br. Harold's face was not covered; he simply laid there, participating in the Eucharistic feast with his community.

Fr. Louis Merton & Dom James Fox
At the conclusion of the mass, his bier was lifted once again and transported to the Abbey cemetery, located immediately outside the church.  Here is buried Thomas Merton - known in the community as Fr. Louis - and beside him is buried Dom James Fox, the abbot with whom Merton had a very complicated relationship.  Here are buried monks from over 160 years of monastic life at the Abbey, each of whom had distinctive personalities and gifts, each of whom played some part in the life of the community, a life that can be messy and difficult while simultaneously beautiful.  Dozens of white crosses bearing the names and death-dates of deceased brothers surround the church.

We processed with the bier outside where a new grave had been dug.  In addition to the monks, there were in attendance members of Br. Harold's family as well as those from the surrounding area who knew Br. Harold well.  I didn't know Br. Harold; he was already in the infirmary with Alzheimer's by the time I moved to Kentucky.  I understand that I missed out on knowing a beautiful and simple man who experienced God deeply, particuarly when looking at a flower in bloom.

To allow as many of Br. Harold's brother-monks, as well as his family and friends, to be near the graveside, I found a spot near the church that stood above the graveside where I was able to look directly into the grave itself.  Cistercians dig their graves very deep - 11 feet - and they bury their dead without caskets.  From my perch I could see that a pillow had been placed in the grave, on which had been placed a flower.  There was also a ladder leading into the grave.

After the graveside prayers, one of the monks descended the ladder while others lifted Br. Harold from the bier.  The sheet on which he had been placed had six long strings attached by which he would be lowered into his place of rest.  The monk on the ladder was there to help too.  As his brothers lowered Br. Harold down, the monk in the grave gingerly held Br. Harold's head.  There was love in the way he did this.  I was reminded of the care my wife and I took when we would try gingerly to place a sleeping infant into his crib, doing all we could to make sure that his sleep wasn't disturbed.  When Br. Harold reached the bottom of the grave, I could see his brother-monk almost tuck him in for his rest.  He carefully laid Harold's head on the pillow, placed a white shroud over Harold's face, and then ascended out of the grave, lifting the ladder out of it once he came to the top.

From my vantage point I could see Br. Harold at the bottom of the grave, lying there.  I then saw the dirt get shoveled down upon him.  It was, truth be told, disconcerting to see a human body - not a body in a casket, but simply a body - get covered in dirt.  But never before had the words said on Ash Wednesday - "Remember you are dust" - been as real to me as they were at that moment.

More importantly, never had I experienced death as something beautiful before this funeral.  It is true that I did not know Br. Harold, and so his death was not a personal loss for me.  But what I witnessed at this Cistercian funeral was the care and love of a community for one of their brothers, a care that extended to the depths of a grave.  Br. Paul Quenon's beautiful photograph of Br. Harold being lowered into the grave is a picture of communal love (I've pasted the photograph at the bottom of this post, with Br. Paul's permission).

On Ash Wednesday we will be reminded once again of our mortality; some of us need this reminder more than others.  But there is something about my experience at Br. Harold's funeral that leads me to contemplate my mortality, not as something to be feared, but as an invitation to give more completely of myself to those in my community - to my wife, to my sons, to my students and colleagues, to those in my parish, and to those in my neighbourhood and city.  Br. Harold lived out an ascetic life of prayer and devotion in the context of a community, staking his own existence to the existences of others.  And in his illness and in his death, the community cared deeply for him.  To be reminded of our mortality is to confront our own weakness, and so to come face to face with the reality of how deeply we truly need one another.

Photo by Br. Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O

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