My wife’s 94-year-old uncle died just before Christmas. For 54 years he had lived as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky. When he entered the abbey, her Uncle Pete became Brother William Mary. Because he’d been important in Carole’s early life, we drove down to his funeral.
I didn’t know what to expect at a monk’s funeral, so I was surprised at the impact it had.
I’ve spent 73 years pondering the meaning of life. (Off-and-on pondering, mind you, not continuous pondering. I stop pondering to play tennis and poker. And eat.) What I learned at Brother William’s funeral, however, was something about the meaning of death.
For 24 hours prior to the funeral mass, his body lay in state in the center aisle of the chapel, between the rows of pews. The monks held a vigil; there was always a brother sitting behind the open pine box that contained his body. They took shifts all through the night, chanting and praying with him to help his transition to the next life.
When we entered the chapel, near the end of the vigil, it was a powerful image: Brother William lying in the open pine box in his long, white hooded robe, his slacks and shoes visible at the bottom of his vestments. A monk was seated just behind his head, praying aloud, oblivious to people beginning to take their seats in the pews around him.
When the mass began, the simple pine box was carried up to the front of the chapel, between the rows of chairs set up for the monks. His body remained there during the mass, surrounded by the community that had been his family for most of his life. His body was facing the enormous hanging banner depicting Jesus, as if Brother William were lying there, gazing at the source of his life’s meaning.
But the most powerful part for me was the actual burial. The open pine box was carried by six monks from the front of the church to the cemetery, just outside the door. There were neat rows of identical white crosses marking the graves of monks, including the grave of Thomas Merton, Gethsemani’s most famous resident. A fresh grave had been dug at one end of the cemetery, and the box holding Brother William was placed next to the open grave.
After a few graveside prayers, a team of brothers prepared the grave. A metal ladder – the kind many of us have in our garage – was lowered into the grave. One brother, wearing his white vestment, climbed down into the hole and spread out a cloth along the bottom. Six other brothers, using canvas straps that had been placed under the body, lifted Brother William out of the pine box, and carried his body to the open grave. The brother already in the grave reached up and gently guided the body down, placing another piece of cloth over the body. He climbed out of the grave, pulled the ladder up, and tossed the first symbolic handful of dirt – dust to dust – into the grave. Others followed suit.
Then we all walked away from the open grave. The service, and Brother William’s life, were over.
I’ve been to many funerals, but never experienced so powerfully the raw, unadorned meaning of death. The body was gently and respectfully lowered into the grave, but in my mind I experienced a final thud… the silent sound of the cold earth receiving the lifeless body.
Maybe what surprised me was that I experienced two meanings of death. In the eyes of most of the people there, they were witnessing Brother William’s transition to the next life, perhaps uniting with his parents and siblings. It was the beginning of something. Through my eyes, as I saw the actual body lowered into the grave, I was witnessing a definitive end of a long life.
I didn’t feel sadness. I wasn’t fighting back tears. I felt a satisfaction that things were as they should be. He had lived the life he chose. His lifestyle and his beliefs all came together at the end of his long journey. And he was resting in peace.