New Melleray Abbey in Iowa makes beautiful hand-crafted Trappist caskets and urns. You can see a display of their wares on a visit to the monastery.
Monasteries and other religious communities often operate small businesses to support themselves, producing items like candy, bread, soap, candles, and jams.
While you probably wouldn’t want to bring one home as a remembrance of your retreat at New Melleray (“look at the nice gift I bought you at the abbey, dear”), I think this is a splendid idea. The Trappist monks here cut the wood for their caskets from their sustainably managed forest and then shape it into moderately priced coffins. According to the monks, “each coffin is crafted as if it were a cradle,” and before each casket is shipped, a monk blesses it with a special prayer.
Manual labor is a vital part of life at many monasteries, both Christian and Buddhist. While such labor is necessary for practical reasons, it also is valued because a life of prayer is often nourished by simple, repetitive movements, whether that’s cutting a piece of wood, knitting a shawl, or kneading bread.
I remember reading once about a monastery that tried designing web pages to earn extra income. Though they were making good money at it, eventually they gave it up because it required too much concentration, the same sort of mental focus that was needed to sustain their spiritual life.
There’s a lesson there, I think. Those of us who make our livelihood solely on the basis of our mental labors miss out on the spiritual growth that can come from working with our hands. The good monks at New Melleray know that in the shaping of the wood, they are also shaping their souls.
So if you’re looking for a plain pine box in which to spend eternity, you can order it here. You can also buy more elaborate and expensive caskets, as well as urns for cremated remains. Your purchase can be delivered within one or two days anywhere in the country.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.