A monastic funeral

Records from the past are limited, so the few records we have take on disproportionate importance. The monastic order for Christian burial was carefully written down; we must assume that burial in general followed this pattern, though we know a few interesting differences for secular Christian burials (later entry). The monks documented mainly what prayers and rituals had to be observed, rather than the sewing technique for shrouds or other literal burial details.

The dying monk had one last confession of sin and received absolution; his monastic community chanted the Psalms during this time and perhaps until his death. It could be tricky to get the timing of Last Rites, because it could only be done once. It created legal death, just as for the lepers who “died” when they entered the leper colony. Of course, if a monk or anyone else survived and recovered, they had to figure something out. There are some records of survivors having to do penance. Among the secular, the opposite problem was almost more likely: to die so fast that last confession could not be heard. But in the monastery, there was always someone nearby.

The deceased monk was placed on sackcloth (burlap) and ashes, surrounded by candles, while his community said Mass for his soul. Then the body was washed and positioned with clasped hands, in prayer, dressed in his monastic robes. The body lay in the church overnight, while monks took turns singing the psalms or chanting prayers between the usual hours of prayer. After morning Mass, they buried the monk. The burial itself was very simple in a monastery; the hard work had been done already, caring for the deceased person’s soul.

Monastic cemeteries tended to double as orchards and flower gardens. Monks and nuns were laid to rest, probably in unmarked graves, at the foot of apple trees or near beds of lilies. All monasteries grew lilies and roses for use in the church at certain seasons to honor the Virgin Mary; lilies and roses were “her” flowers.

Monks did not write wills, having already left their possessions behind in joining the monastery. (You may recall that writing a will was part of the process of becoming an ordained monk.) Their only possessions in the monastic community were their robes and shoes, and a few tools like a knife to sharpen pens and a needle to mend their robes. What wasn’t buried with them would be washed and passed on in the community. Before experiencing a death close to me, I might have wondered if this felt weird to them, but I’m sure it didn’t. Monks and nuns developed life-long close friendships and would be glad to have Brother Thomas’s penknife, or Sister Barbara’s shoes, as small keepsakes in a lifestyle that so de-emphasized things and ownership.

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