The walnut planks used to make Caroline Found’s casket grew for 120 years in a quiet northeast Iowa forest.
Tucked away behind a hulking limestone monastery, the tree was prayed over by the monks of New Melleray Abbey for more than a century, generations of brothers ushering it from seedling to sapling to hardwood.
And when it was felled and milled, they prayed over its new form, too: a coffin for a young woman whose life ended just as it was beginning.
Found, 17, was an effervescent volleyball star at Iowa City West and a senior, right at the juncture between child and adult. Just as her team was preparing to try to repeat as state champs, Found died in a moped accident. She’d left a church youth group meeting to go see her mother, Ellyn, who was fighting pancreatic cancer at the hospital, when her bike jumped the curb and hit a tree.
She died instantly.
'Easter resurrection is the whole point': What casket-making means to Iowa monk
Zach Boyden-Holmes, Des Moines Register
Picking a casket was the hardest of the many terminal decisions Dr. Ernie Found made for his daughter. Knowing the vessel that would hold his beloved “Line” for eternity would be handmade — as unique as she was, not stamped out of sheet metal 1,000 at a time — provided some small measure of comfort in his darkest days.
“We knew the love and care that went into making the casket,” Found says, “and knowing that eased our pain slightly.”
“Sometimes,” he adds after a pause, “it’s the little things that help you take a deep breath.”
Most of those early days are jumbled, but he remembers standing by the casket at his daughter’s viewing and feeling a warmth rise in his chest. In that moment, he, his daughter and the monks were connected spiritually, he says.
And then he took a deep breath.
At Trappist Caskets, the monks and lay people are not just manufacturing coffins; they’re making cradles to the next life — vessels that hold not only a body, but also memories, stories and hopes that loved ones will see the deceased again.
The woodworkers here are much more than craftsman, the brothers tell me, they’re caretakers.
Unlike other Trappist monasteries — who trade in fruitcakes or candies or, famously, beer — these Iowa monks see their work as a commercial manifestation of their worldview to leave the earthly plane no worse off than they found it, while also spreading the faith, if only for a funeral service.
Using wood milled from their 1,550-acre forest, the Trappist team handcrafts coffins and urns sized for infants, toddlers, children, youth and adults, blessing each as it’s completed. For every coffin purchased, they plant a new tree, physically replenishing the forest that provides their livelihood.
Since the monks started tending the dead in the early 2000s, they’ve given away caskets for children and stillborns, staunch in their belief that all life deserves remembrance and that parents grieving this most incomprehensible of deaths shouldn’t face any barriers to seeing their child rested.
As coronavirus began sweeping the world, the monks decided to give again. This time they're donating plain pine caskets to victims of COVID-19.
Iowa Mourns: The Iowans we've lost to COVID-19
In the first week, they got a call from a woman who requested five caskets, all for relatives killed by the virus. By the next afternoon, they’d received five more calls.
Two decades since its founding, Trappist has delivered caskets to all 50 states, and across the world, including to Ireland, Guam and Nigeria. It employs 25 lay people and has grown from sending out 200 caskets a week to 2,000.
Despite that expansion, the Trappists are still the David of the funeral business, a world made up of just a few big Goliath casket companies. But staying small is just fine with them. Getting into this business was never about monetary wealth, but spiritual riches.
“This is a holy place,” says Cathy Freiburger, who sews caskets' fabric liners in the upholstery department. And when you work here, your faith can’t help but grow a little stronger.
“I know I'm working for the monks,” Freiburger says, “but a lot of times, I feel like I'm working for God.”
Two calls: One spiritual, one earthly
Brother Joseph Kronebusch stares at the notches he’s cut into a skinny plank of red oak with the intensity of a Grandmaster looking for his next attack.
No one will see the tiny plastic pieces that fill the divots, an assist to the glue holding the wood at a 45-degree angle, but he’ll know if the infant-sized beams are off.
And Brother Joseph is a stickler for details.
He’d converted to “serious Christianity” while in graduate school, and held a doctorate in molecular biology when the Lord clearly called to him in his late 30s. He fell in with a group of friends whose social lives revolved around prayer, evangelism and religious retreats.
At a conference in Indianapolis — where the fervor was no more frenzied than the dozen or so he’d attended before — a chaplain took to the podium and cried out for anyone who’s been called to a religious vocation to come down and be prayed on.
The voice was so clear that Joseph glanced around to see who’d spoken. His friends’ faces were all turned toward the stage. No one was paying any attention to the scientist, let alone making divine declarations.
He didn’t go to the podium.
But the voice nagged at him, hovering behind all his lab work. During the early years of his conversion, he’d considered monasticism, but cloistering away to pray and study seemed selfish.
“It felt like a waste of a life,” he says.
He couldn’t shake the voice. He wrote. He researched. He prayed.
A year later, back in Indianapolis, he answered the call from the podium.
Ask 100 Trappists what their call to religious life was like, and you’ll get 100 answers, he says. But to endure a lifetime in the monastery, there’s always one similarity: The call to come was strong.
For more than 150 years, farming sustained the monks of Peosta, just outside Dubuque. But the combination of an aging population and increasing expenses leading to fewer and fewer profits meant they could no longer survive on agriculture alone. And selling land was only a temporary solution.
Now, they all felt an earthlier call — a call to diversify their portfolio.
The monks' biggest commodity was their forests, tended to since they first stepped foot on Hawkeye soil.
And an enterprising, maybe a bit eccentric, rancher just south in Jackson County had an idea for them.
Putting spirituality back into death
Sam Mulgrew had been playing God with a chainsaw for a few years before he wrote a letter to the New Melleray abbot saying he had an idea for a business venture.
Owning a small forest, he’d cut down some trees to ensure the health of others, ending up with too many logs for his family fireplace, but not enough for anything other than a cottage startup.
Caskets, he decided. Handmade caskets.
For most of his life, death has been a bit of an obsession, specifically, “how our rituals and our liturgy surrounding death can easily become perverted by commercial influences,” he says in his office.
With a degree in intellectual history, his favorite book is “The Denial of Death,” a tome about man’s refusal to accept his mortality. Another dog-eared treasure is “The American Way of Death,” an Upton Sinclair-like expose of the funeral industry.
He made a go of caskets for a year or two before he heard the monks were closing up the farm. Don’t turn to candies or beer or fruitcakes, he wrote to the abbot.
No, the better business is caskets.
Economically, the whole endeavor is vertically integrated, he says leaning back. The monks control every step of the process: planting trees, managing forests, harvesting mature stock, milling boards, making a finished product and dealing with the end user.
Unless you own an Etsy store, there aren’t many businesses like that anymore.
But there’s a spiritual aspect to the craftsmanship of coffins, too, says Mulgrew, who's executive director of the business. The closer we can get to death, he believes, the easier it becomes to cope with the grief.
“In the East, the people who handle death are from the priestly class,” he says. “They are the people that have had an experience with God, with the other world.”
“In that grand sweep of the profane and the sacred, I think we’re kind of swaying that needle a little bit more back towards the sacred.”
A gift from nature
The sun’s rays bathed the small workshop in light as daybreak tried to joust away a heavy spring fog. Most lay people had been at work since 5 or 6 that morning, right around the time the monks were getting ready for their second round of prayers.
“Holy light for a holy place,” Denny Felton says with a smile.
Felton likes to say he came with the building. After a two-year pilot program of making caskets in their barns, the monks were ready to invest in the operation, and the contractor hired Felton to hang the building’s trim.
He stayed on after the job was done.
For three months, the old guy training Felton made him watch how a casket’s lid was put together. You have to respect the wood, the man would say; cherish this gift that nature gave you.
Over and over and over, Felton, a longtime woodworker, observed, studying the man’s repetition before he was allowed to try his hand at one.
For about a decade after that, he made only lids.
Now, he works part-time as the old guy teaching the new guys how to respect and cherish the wood. Slow down, he tells them, you’re working on “monk time” now.
“The monks always say that we want to make our caskets like ‘a cradle to the next life,’ and that kind of hit home with me,” he says, reaching into his wallet to pull out a crinkled piece of paper.
This is Ian, he tells me, handing over a tiny footprint. He was 25 weeks old, “way premature.” He lived for 36 hours.
Felton didn’t know about Trappist back then, but not a day goes by that he doesn’t wish he’d buried his grandbaby in one of their consecrated caskets.
“Everybody here has got a story like that,” he says.
Ora et Labora
Looking over the pile of rough boards by the cargo bay, James Knight, 30, grabs a few and places them on his cart. He’ll plane and sand them before cutting the pieces to size for various models.
Knight has loved woodworking for as long as he can remember, becoming a finish carpenter soon after high school. When he moved to Dubuque, he found a job at Trappist on Craigslist.
Cabinets, he swore it said.
Caskets, it actually said.
“I was like, I don't know if I'm going to be able to work in something like this,” he says. “It’s kind of a downer.”
So, he called his mom.
Think of the blessing you’re giving these people, his mom told him, helping them get through one of the roughest chapters of their life.
That sentiment remained mostly hypothetical until one of the public memorials New Melleray holds for friends and family of those buried in Trappist Caskets. The service in 2019 drew more than 700 people, many of whom waited in line for hours to see their loved one’s name written in the monks’ prayer book.
A couple from Maryland approached him while he sanded.
Was he the James whose name had been in their daughter’s casket?
Yes, he said.
Could they take a picture with him to remember who built the last cradle their little girl would lie in?
“I didn’t know these people, and it was just a punch to the gut how much this work means to them,” he said.
After that, he got the monks' motto tattooed on his forearm so he’d never forget the greater meaning of what he does.
Pulling up his sweatshirt, he shows me: “Ora et Labora.” Pray and Work.
Caskets, in the time of COVID
The upholstery department is the last stop before shipping.
It’s here where the finality of this business hits home, Freiburger tells me, where the bedding and the pillows are added, where a nicely made box becomes a casket.
You try to hang onto the joy that exists below the surface, she says, the idea that those who occupy these caskets lived a long life, ran the race until the end.
But the little caskets pull you up short, a life cut off before it even got started.
And this spring, those pine caskets, the ones donated to victims of COVID-19, had the same effect.
You couldn’t help but notice how many plain pine caskets rolled into the upholstery department, said Susan Kedley, a seamstress.
“I was just thinking, are we ever going to get control of this?” Kedley says. “I mean, when is this disease going to come to an end?”
Freiburger, across the room, attaching fabric to the lid of a cherry casket, nods in agreement.
“I would just think, 'How old was that person? And how old was that person? And how old was that person?’”
In the office, Marjorie Lehmann, the abbey’s administrative director, answered phone calls from bereaved relatives, often overcome by the stories of loneliness that surrounded COVID deaths. At any time, most people are upset at the thought of burying their loved one, she admits, but those who lost a family member to COVID seemed to have some extra burden in their voices.
One woman had been her mother’s caretaker for nearly a decade before her mom started to need more help than she could offer. Just before the pandemic, her mother went into a nursing home, the woman said.
And as COVID swept the state, it swept her mother’s hallway, too.
Her mother had to die alone. She had to be buried alone. And her daughter often wonders if she suffered alone, too.
“Alone” is not how her mother, a social person, liked to do anything.
Then there was the junior high teacher who called on behalf of his students, Lehmann says. A handful of their parents were suffering from the disease, and the teacher wanted to give a donation to cover the cost of their caskets should any of them pass.
When she told him that whatever caskets were needed would be donated to his students, he was rendered speechless, she says.
She heard back from the teacher a little while after that. One parent would need a casket.
The monks donated it, free of charge.
The monks’ magic
Despite a first blush of morbidity, there’s a sacredness to working in caskets, Brother Joseph tells me.
It’s at the end of life that people have a crisis of faith; whether they lose it, struggle to grasp it or are ultimately affirmed in it. No matter what their journey holds, the loved ones of those buried in Trappist Caskets can lean on the brothers’ belief against the swells of grief.
Though unseen, that bond between maker and mourner is felt, employees say. It’s as real as the saws that mill the wood, the glue that holds the joints and the dust that fills the air. They may never know the person who uses their wares, but they’re present to each other, connected spiritually through time and space.
Brother Joseph used to think a cloistered life was a waste, that sequestering from the world meant he wouldn't have an impact. And, indeed, the monks of New Melleray are separated from most of society, interacting only with the lay people at the workshop and those who, in non-COVID times, visit the grounds.
But to think that influence happens only with direct contact, direct action, is like looking at an M.C. Escher painting and seeing it only in 2-D. That naïve perception, as Brother Joseph calls it now, denies how the spirit moves, how shapeless and unbounded love and generosity and benevolence and kindness can be when given freely.
The monks’ magic is that as they remain cloistered, they are not closed. That even in seclusion, they manage to touch so many.
When you feel completely and totally alone, Felton says, know that you’re not.
“Every hour of every day, there is a monk out there praying,” Felton says, “praying with you and praying for you.”
COVID has cast a pall over this last year, Brother Joseph says, leaving a patina of sorrow that’s almost tangible.
But grief and love are foils of each other, existing in the universe in equal measure.
“The fact that people are so sad is because there's so much love there,” he adds. “So it's really a manifestation, a celebration of the love that we have for each other; that's why they grieve.”
A few months after Line’s death, her high school volleyball team won the state championship. Her father, Ernie, was in the stands, erupting with joy, a warmth rising in his chest.
Bring on the rest of the world, he thought, bring on the future.
From earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
From tree to board to casket to tree again.
Life always finds a way, if we keep the faith.
Replacing Ian’s footprint in his wallet, Felton takes out a second one. Same size, same crinkled edges, similar black smudge.
This is McKenna, he says. She was born a year later, also at 25 weeks.
“But she’s still with us,” he says. “She’s 16 years old now.”
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state telling Iowans' stories. She's a parallel parking master acquainting herself with gravel roads. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.