By Perry West
An Iowa monastery of Trappist monks is offering an unusual but necessary act of charity amid the global pandemic – free caskets to financially struggling families who have lost a loved one.
New Melleray Abbey has been making caskets for the public and offering prayers for the deceased since 1999. The monastery announced last week its new initiative to support families affected by COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 virus will visit many families that are financially vulnerable and unprepared. In addition to their grief, they will wonder, ; ‘Where will we lay’ our loved one who has been unexpectedly taken from us,” Father Mark Scott, the order’s abbot, wrote in an announcement of the policy.
“To financially stressed families directly impacted by the COVID-19 virus, the monks of New Melleray offer free of charge pine caskets made from trees from the abbey forest,” he added.
New Melleray Abbey supports itself by building solid wood caskets made from fully matured trees harvested at the order’s acreage in Dubuque County, Iowa.
All of the donated caskets will be blessed and, as the order continues to pray for the deceased, the monks will send a card of remembrance to families on the first anniversary of the person’s death. The order also plants a tree for each casket made, as a living memorial.
Marjorie Lehmann, director of administration for New Melleray Abbey, told CNA that the order has already received a few requests for free caskets since the initiative was announced March 25.
“The free casket offer is a temporary measure designed to provide some financial relief to families who are undergoing financial distress because of COVID-19,” she said.
While the monks live a hidden life of prayer, she said, they are keenly aware of the current events. She said the order has provided this service to be close to the pandemic victims, and provide a service to those families facing financial difficulties as well.
“In the crisis of COVID-19, [they] make the offer of the casket as an expression of their solidarity with all those who are suffering because of the virus,” Lehmann said.
“They believe that it’s a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead and … since they are a cloistered group of monks, this is how they can reach out to the world and help in a time of need.”
More than one million people have been infected with the novel coronavirus and more 50,000 have died. More than 10 million people in the U.S. have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks, as mandatory lockdowns have forced numerous businesses and organizations to close their doors.
Lehmann said the virus is a potential danger for anyone, noting that the full ramifications of the pandemic have yet to be seen.
“[It] could really be anyone who might be out of a job because their workplaces needed to close down because of this pandemic. It really could be anyone finding themselves in financial stress or needing that comfort of burying their loved one and a small part of relief in their life from a donated casket,” she said.
“[It’s] honoring someone’s life, respecting the person that passes away is honoring that person’s life and validating that person’s life,” Lehmann added.
“People need people to show compassion. This is a very small gesture of something that a lot of people would need in this pandemic. So to be compassionate and know that people are not alone, that we’re thinking of them, we’re praying for them, and we’re here to help in this manner. There’s no reason not to do it.”