The Funeral of a Monk
The funeral and burial of a Cistercian Monk reminds us that by acknowledging the reality of death we can more readily affirm the meaning of life. Monks take seriously the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospel of John: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” (Jn 11: 25). Accordingly, monks live their lives in the conviction that when death occurs it is not something to be feared or denied. Instead, it is to be welcomed as a birth into an entirely new way of being fully and eternally alive. The death and burial of a Cistercian monk reflects a harmony between the stark finality of death and the profound reality of what is taking place in a life that is just beginning.
Preparing for Death
As death approaches, the abbot alerts the monks and tells them one of their brothers has been anointed and is dying. When death is imminent, the abbey bell is rung to summon the entire community to their brother’s side. The monks gather in the sickroom or in the hallway to pray together, reciting psalms, litanies and other prayers from their Cistercian tradition. Whenever possible, a hospitalized monk is brought home to die in the company of his brothers.
Transferring of the Body
Immediately following death, the body is washed and clothed in a clean habit. In most cases this is all the preparation that is needed prior to the funeral which takes place within 24 to 48 hours. The monks then gather for a short ceremony of prayers and readings during which time the abbot blesses the body before it is transferred in a procession from the infirmary to the church.
If the monk has suffered a debilitating physical illness or if the funeral must be postponed in order to allow time for relatives to arrive, the body will need to be taken into town to be embalmed and returned to the monastery for burial. When this happens, the entire community gathers to receive the body when it arrives. The abbot and several other monks bring their dead brother’s remains inside the cloister for a simple ceremony consisting of blessings and prayers prior to processing into the church.
The body is placed on a bier or in an open pine box in front of the abbey church’s altar. From then on for the rest of the day, through the night and into the next morning, the monks take turns keeping prayerful watch beside the body. This centuries-old tradition of keeping Vigil throughout the hours preceding the funeral is a beautiful embodiment of the spiritual bond that unites all Cistercian monks in what has come to be known as the “school of charity.”
The Funeral Mass
Singing an entrance hymn, the entire community is led into the church by a monk carrying the processional cross. The funeral begins with the traditional Mass, Roman Catholic for the Dead, presided over by the Abbot, clothed in white vestments to symbolize the resurrection of Christ. When the Mass has ended, the abbot comes forward to bless the body with incense and sprinkle it with holy water. While this is taking place, the rest of the monastic community sings a hymn which affirms the Christian’s belief in the power of Resurrection: “And I will raise him up. And I will raise him up. And I will raise him up on the last day.”
The procession to the cemetery is led by six monks who come forward to carry the bier from the church. With the Paschal Candle to guide them, the procession moves forward through the chapter room and out the door of the Abbey to the cemetery. During the final procession, the great abbey bells are rung at solemn intervals until everyone has gathered at the grave site.
The Burial of a Monk
The bier is carefully placed atop four straps that have been laid across the grave. Next to the grave is a mound of fresh dirt and several shovels. Standing at the head of the grave, the abbot prays while blessing both the body and the grave one last time with holy water and incense. A white cloth is placed over the body and then the body is carefully lowered into the grave while the community sings Psalm 138. When the body has been lowered all the way to the bottom of the grave, the straps are pulled back, the brothers step aside, and the Abbot throws the first handfuls of dirt onto the body. The shovels are then handed from brother to brother in order for the entire community to take a turn at filling in the grave. In recent years the brothers have invited anyone who is present for the burial to come forward and participate in this final act of closure and farewell.
Before leaving the cemetery the Abbot invites all who are present to join him in praying the Lord’s Prayer prior to concluding the burial by singing once again, the words of the Resurrection Song “And I will Raise Him Up.”
At the conclusion of the song, the burial has come to an end. There is no procession back to the church, and no reception that follows, (although relatives and friends are invited to gather in the Abbey’s Guesthouse for coffee and light refreshments.) The monks return to their ordinary lives of work and prayer within the monastery. They have just buried one of their brothers secure in the belief that he will rise again, and they know that he is at rest in the love of Christ.