Living simply even unto death: Caskets made by Trappists monks

By Steve Nicely 

First-time visitors to the gift shop at the New Melleray Trappist Monastery near Dubuque, Iowa, confront a display of unusual merchandise. There, with the holy cards and jars of honey, are several burial caskets “hand-crafted by monks” from lumber harvested in the abbey’s 1,100-acre forest.

Jeanne Quann, who volunteers at the gift shop about 30 hours a week, seems comfortable explaining the features of each coffin model.

The simple, rectangular model with flat surfaces and a screw-down lid goes for $875 in white pine or $975 in oak. Next are the European-shaped models wider at the shoulders than at the ends, but still with flat surfaces. They are $975 in pine and $995 in oak. Finally, the premium models range from $1,695 in oak to $2,075 for the top-of-the-line walnut casket. They feature raised panel joinery, compound miters and premium-grade lumber. View them on the website, Trappistcaskets.com.

Quann said she has selected the most economical model for herself, “because I know where it’s going and I hope I’m not staying where it’s going. There is no need for anything more.”

The casket business, based on selling directly to consumers with next-day delivery anywhere in the nation, is more than a sideline at the monastery. It represents hope against a combination of adverse circumstances. Slim farm profits and a declining and aging work force of monks are the main factors. The effects are compounded by the need to hire outside help at market wages with fringe benefits. New Melleray, like the world at large, is in a state of rapid change. It is struggling to survive.

Trappist monks live their lives in communities set apart from society. They adhere to the nearly1,500-year-old monastic rule of St. Benedict which emphasizes prayer, work, equality, wholeness, health and ecology. But few young men have embraced that lifestyle in recent years. The abbey is down to 32 monks from its peak of 150, and their median age is 70. The result is a 23-person lay workforce to help maintain the monastery’s 3,800-acre farm and facilities.

Father Brenden Freeman, the monastery’s elected abbot, sees no signs on the horizon for reversing current trends. The situation sent the monks searching for a way to add value to their goods and services. Their hardwood forest, carefully cultivated for 150 years, seemed a logical point of opportunity.

All 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States are required to support themselves from within. The famous Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky augments its income by selling fruitcakes, cheese and bourbon fudge. Others market candy and bread. One provides storage for the wine industry. New Melleray commissioned a market study to assess the feasibility of making furniture. “Don’t do it,” came the study’s conclusion. The furniture industry is much too competitive.

That’s when the monks turned their attention to Sam Mulgrew, a young farmer 30 miles south of the abbey. Unable to make a decent living on his 620 acres, Mulgrew converted a milking shed into a woodworking shop in 1996 and began making simple caskets. The funeral of a friend in a garish, out-of-character casket alerted Mulgrew to need for tasteful, inexpensive coffins, he said. An added incentive was the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, which guarantees the right of families to shop for caskets wherever they please.

The monks struck a deal with Mulgrew in 2000. They bought his business and hired him to manage it for them. The Trappist name is a brand reflecting quality, honesty and spirituality. Each box receives a monk’s blessing before it is shipped. Thus, the trademarked name of the business is “Trappist Caskets,” followed by the slogan, “The Genuine Monk-Made Casket.”

Mulgrew said his prices are considerably less than the prices of similar products offered elsewhere. Costco, the membership discount chain, offers 20 mass-produced caskets on its website, Costco.com. All but two are made of metal with prices ranging from $925 to $3,000. Two cherry wood caskets go for 2,700 and $3,000.

But Mulgrew said he does not consider other casket manufacturers as his primary competition. Funeral directors, who quietly discourage families from buying anywhere but in the funeral parlor’s own showroom, represent the biggest obstacle for Trappist Caskets.

Business is good for the young, growing company, Mulgrew said. Twelve monks and 10 hired workers produced 1,200 caskets in 2006. Future growth was deemed promising enough for the monks to consolidate operations from several aging barns and sheds into a new, $3-million, 40,000-square-foot carpentry shop due to open in the spring. It will have space set apart for the monks to work, Mulgrew said, because they find the chatter and banter of lay workers distracting.

Trappist Caskets sells directly to consumers, but has “a few strategic alliances” with exclusive distributors, Mulgrew said. One is Catholic Cemeteries operated by the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. The agreement involves most of the Kansas City area including Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas and Clay, Platte and Jackson counties in Missouri. All Trappist Caskets sold in the five county area will be delivered by Catholic Cemeteries.

The price you pay will depend on whom you contacted first, the monastery or Catholic Cemeteries. If it is the monastery, you’ll pay the direct sales prices listed above plus shipping charges ranging from $60 to $350 depending on distance. If ordered from Catholic Cemeteries, you pay its prices, which are $475 to $905 higher than the monastery’s prices. Catholic Cemeteries provides free delivery in the 5-county area and the opportunity to see them without making a trip to Dubuque. It maintains an inventory of all Trappist Caskets at its Resurrection Cemetery at 83rd and Quivira Road in Lenexa. They may be seen by appointment by calling 913-371-4040.

Apart from the new casket-making business, Fr. Freeman is uncertain what the future holds for New Melleray and the Trappist way of life. The monastery has a history of surviving dire circumstances. The Irish potato famine precipitated the migration of monks to Dubuque in 1849 from the Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland’s County Waterford. It’s existence was threatened by debt in 1877 and again in 1911 by a drop in membership below 20. Regardless, the abbey celebrated its centennial in 1949 with 108 monks. Its size peaked in 1960 at 150.

Fr. Freeman does not foresee a rebound in vocations to monasticism under existing rule requirements that monks make life-long commitments. He thinks new models of monasticism will evolve offering varying levels and lengths of commitment. That would involve opening the monastery’s doors wider to lay involvement from outside.

Increased lay participation already is happening: Guests are welcome to attend mass and other prayer services at the monastery; the monks conduct regular retreats for private individuals, and the abbey has a lay organization of 55 affiliated members known as Associates of Iowa Cistercians.

Regardless, the truths that monks have embraced for centuries remain constant.

“Death is natural for monks,” Fr. Freeman said. “We see our lives as a preparation for heaven. We are exhorted in our rule to ‘keep death daily before our eyes’ and to ‘long for eternity with all the fervor of our hearts.’”

Steve Nicely is a former reporter for The Kansas City Star. You can visit the monastery’s casket website at: http://trappistcaskets.com.

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2 Comments »

  1. Nancy Moylan said

    Steve & Michael –
    Well done – thanks for the reminder of this wonderful service and the simple life of the monks.
    Caused me to remember when Bill’s father passed away in ’85 we went to Conception and brought home a simple casket – fitting for this kind man. Bill set to work immediately sanding and I began work on a cloth interior. Then we went to the funeral home where we were told they would not take responsibility for the casket falling apart and poor Joe falling out along the way.
    Back to the monastery we went as the visual was just too much for Bill’s Mom.
    I wonder if the monks at Conception still offer this service. I am glad to hear there is more support for this decision now.
    Thank you, Olive Branch, for providing a bit of spiritual reality on this blooming computer from time to time.
    Blessings.
    Nancy

  2. Michael Humphrey said

    Nancy,

    I looked at Conception’s website to see if they had information about caskets and couldn’t find any. But I’m glad you mentioned them, because I think it would be a good idea to pay their printery house a visit sometime soon for another segment in this series.

    Also, if anyone has ideas for the simple living series — it will be ongoing — please send them to me — the email address is in the About Us section.

    Peace,

    Mike Humphrey

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