Local monks construct caskets to support lifestyle of worship

Brother Joseph Kronebusch organizes panels of wood to be used in constructing caskets.

Singing voices echo through the vaulted ceilings of the chapel at New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa, as Trappist monks participate in their daily 11:45 a.m. worship.

This prayer marks the midway point for the devout followers of Saint Benedict, who spend seven times each day in this sanctuary professing their faith to God.

Amid the hours of praise, many of the monks make their way to a spacious workshop less than a mile from the church, where they support their lifestyle through labor.

A dozen of the members of this Cistercian order of monks have a hand in crafting vessels for the untimely and inevitable -- solid wood caskets.

The caskets are made on-site at the Peosta monastery, as monks work alongside skilled laypeople to build the boxes from start to finish.

Of the 3,400-acre campus, 1,400 acres are set aside for a monastic forest, where trees are initially harvested, and eventually transformed into caskets and urns.

The noise of saws and drills erupts in this wood-filled workshop, the cacophony interrupting what is predominantly a quiet lifestyle for the monks, who live communally.

Even still, bulky headphones muffle the sounds, giving monks like Brother Joseph Kronebusch the silence they seek for contemplation.

"Once I put these on, I'm in my own little quiet world," said Kronebusch, who has been at the monastery since the mid-2000s.

Kronebusch earned a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but traded his career in a laboratory for a life of vocation after a calling from God.

"This life, with its structure, may appear restrictive," said Kronebusch, referencing the regimented prayer and work schedule," but it's actually quite freeing."

While physically limited -- monks cannot leave the monastery without an accommodation from an Abbott -- Kronebusch and his comrades describe the monastic lifestyle as simple and blissful.

"Life outside is all about competition and self-promotion. Here, it's about self-surrender," said Kronebusch.

The caskets mimic the monks' lifestyle, a solid wood shell with a simple design.

Through the creation and purchase of the caskets and urns, the circle of life is perpetuated.

"A tree is planted for each person that has been buried in a Trappist casket or urn back into the monastic forest that originally the trees are harvested from," said Marjorie Lehmann, a human resources representative and family counselor with Trappist Caskets.

The Catholic monks carefully craft the vessels, but the caskets and urns aren't exclusive to Catholics. In fact, Lehmann explains, the caskets are a physical representation of the arms of God, and thereby "embrace people from all walks of faith, all walks of life."

Lehmann said the monastery sells an average of 30 caskets and 20 urns per week.

The caskets range from $1,200 to $3,500.

Each person who is buried in a Trappist casket or whose ashes rest inside a Trappist urn have their name inscribed in the monastery's perpetual book of life, are honored at a Sunday mass, and their loved ones receive a letter from the monks upon the passing, and on the year anniversary.

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