The Terrible Mercy and Love of a Child’s Casket
Trappists, Sam Mulgrew tells me, “are very land-based.” We’re sitting in the office of Trappist Caskets, just a short walk from New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa. Sam is a layman, not a monk, but he works with the consecrated men as the general manager of their casket business. The Abbey was founded in 1849, and for the next hundred and fifty years, the monks sustained their community by farming. Since 1999, the monks’ work has changed from sowing seeds to burying the dead. They are preparing for the final harvest, when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised.
The work is intended to sustain the community, just as their farming did. The coffins are sold and shipped around the country, but there’s one kind of casket that the monks never sell. Whenever anyone calls to arrange a child’s burial, the monks always send the casket as a gift.
One call that sticks out in Sam’s memory came from a father in Fairbanks, Alaska. His child had been stillborn, and his parish priest had told him his job was to move on. The priest steered the grieving father away from a casket, discouraged him from a memorial Mass, and urged him to bury his child with the minimum ceremony possible.
The father called Trappist Caskets two years after his child had been delivered dead. He had not been able to move on from his regret and anger at being asked to shove his child out of sight. He wanted to disinter his baby, place the child’s tiny body into a proper casket, and rebury the child with the dignity he had been asked to forgo.
He explained all this to Sam, and then asked what the small coffin would cost. Sam explained that it would be given to him, a gift. And then the father hung up.
Sam heard nothing for two weeks, until he received a letter. The father had hung up because he wasn’t able to speak. When his child had died, he hadn’t felt he’d received the support or help he needed, and he was unprepared to find it on the other end of a phone, from someone he had assumed thought of him only as a customer.
A call to the Trappists to order a child’s casket is one no parent wants to make. But, six times in my life, I have hoped to place that call. I have been pregnant seven times, and six times we learned that our baby had died in my womb. Six times, our child was too small for us to be able to recover his or her body for burial. Instead of resting in a casket, I am the only funeral urn they will have.
Even though the Trappists didn’t help us directly, it was a comfort just to know that they were out there, in readiness. Our first obstetrician’s office reacted as though they’d never seen a family upset by a child’s death before. As I sobbed in the waiting room, one of them told me, “You should probably stop crying, you don’t want to be still doing that outside.” But these men were prepared.
They were a silent presence beside me and my husband, even if they didn’t know we were relying on them. They are used to their prayers reaching further than they know. Fr. Albrich, a 62-year-old Trappist, told me that one of his favorite prayers he offers in community is the one they offer at three in the morning. They recite together, “Lord as we keep watch with you this night, we commend all people and their lives to you.” The monks list the categories of people they remember, ending with “those who use the night to do evil, those who are afraid of the day about to dawn. May they all come out into the light of your Day.”
I couldn’t help but picture a cartoon mugger, sneaking up on a victim, and, in his shadow, a silent monk, stooped with age, matching his steps. Did he suspect he was accompanied, and for such a purpose? This, Fr. Albrich said, is the “paradox of cloistered orders.” Although they withdraw physically from the world, they remain present in prayer.
The monks themselves have been surprised by how much fruit has been borne by their prayer and work, or at least by how generous God has been in revealing this to them. By pledging their lives as monks, they trust that God will use their service for good, and they don’t assume that they will see what He does with their offering.
Perhaps that’s why they were so unprepared for the crowds that came when the monks offered their first public memorial mass for all those who had been buried in their coffins. “It was like the Vietnam War memorial,” Br. Joseph recalled. “People stood in line for an hour to look through the books on the altar.” He saw one woman drop to the ground, overcome when she touched the name of the person she had lost. The books record, by hand, the name of everyone who is buried in the monks’ coffins, and prayers are said for every person.
Three hundred eighty people came in 2016, the first year the public Mass was offered. The next year, attendance nearly doubled, and that was with a miserable day and people huddled together under a tent in the parking lot. In 2018, the monks did not schedule one, fearing what would happen if a thousand people came, far beyond their capacity to accommodate. But, when I spoke to them in the summer of 2019, they planned to try again, leaving it in God’s hands. Ultimately, over 700 people came to the Mass in September.
Fr. Albrich remembered how, at one of these public masses, a visiting family sought out one of the lay workers, a man named James. A couple had flown from Maryland, and when they met James, they told him that they had come in part to meet him—the man who had made their baby’s casket. James had years of woodworking experience prior to taking a job alongside the Trappists. No other job had had these stakes.
The monks have these encounters with families, too, but they are different. A layman like James registers as more of an individual; the monks are signs pointing beyond themselves. The relatives who come up with tears in their eyes, Fr. Albrich says, “They never ask your name, they don’t care who you are—you’re a monk.”
Brother Joseph became a monk unusually late in life. He came to New Melleray Abbey when he was fifty years old. “I probably wouldn’t have been accepted,” he told me, “except that I was already part of a religious community.” He had been living out a temporary commitment to a new community in Arkansas, and he found himself relying on Cistercian books to guide his life. His reading led him to a Trappist community that was founded as a daughter abbey to New Melleray, and eventually to the Iowa community itself.
The coffin ministry was a chance to be “work-oriented,” as he put it. It was a welcome change from the life he had anticipated in academia. He began at the carpentry shop, enjoying the challenge of planning cuts around knots. “I’m real frugal,” he admitted, “trying to get as much use out of the wood as possible.”
When he assembles the caskets himself, his prayer is balanced with the need to do the work well, to set tiny corners square. Since he doesn’t know the person who will be laid in his casket, it is sometimes the insistent individuality of the wood itself that is Br. Joseph’s invitation to prayer. He takes a moment to be “just in awe of God’s creation.” In this studio, he tells me, “it’s amazing how many times each piece of wood is touched by a human person.”
I admit I know almost nothing about the distinctions between the kinds of wood he handles, and Br. Joseph leans forward, starting out not with a distinction between kinds of woods, but within them. Walnut, he tells me, goes “from grey to milk chocolate to dark chocolate to even purple.” He tells me not as though he’s rattling off options from a catalogue, but as though, even when the wood is a quotidian part of his work, he is still surprised by the richness of God’s love.
He admits to me that sometimes, if he is alone in the shop, he breaks the rules. Instead of just screwing in earplugs to drown out the machine drone, he listens to Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from the Messiah. And then, he tells me, “I dance around!” In the chapel where we are speaking, he waves his arms to show me.
When he is working, Br. Joseph prays by thinking about the family of the person who has died. He doesn’t always need to use his imagination; he worked on the caskets for both his mother and his father. Seeing a set of children’s caskets can bring him up short, even if they aren’t his to work on. He holds a hand out, and then flips his calloused palm up for me to see. The pillows for the smallest children fit in the hollow of his hand. They are so small, he tells me, that “when you look at them, the first impulse is—isn’t that cute. Then you pull back.”
The tiny pillows cushion the smallest children, often babies lost through stillbirth or miscarriage, who never lay alive on a bed of their own. Families who lose a child this early are often steered toward receptacles that are designed more for disposal than for burial. Marjorie Lehmann, a laywoman and the director of administration for Trappist Caskets, often fields calls from parents looking for an alternative to what the hospital offered.
Some parents were looking for an alternative to the Styrofoam cooler they were offered for their child. In one case, a grandmother was the one to make the call, after her grandchild was lost in a miscarriage. She brought the preemie-sized casket to the hospital when her daughter went to receive her child’s body. The hospital brought out the baby in their standard receptacle—a plastic sack, barely distinct from a garbage bag. The grandmother produced the casket, and the nurses stopped to ask questions; they’d never seen something like that for a miscarried baby before. “And now,” Lehmann says, “those nurses make referrals to us.”
The casket that Br. Joseph is most grateful to have worked on was also intended for someone who had been treated as discardable. The brothers were asked to make a casket for a local girl who had died violently. She and a friend had been abducted, and it was some time before the girls’ bodies were found by hunters. The brothers asked the family what the girl had liked, and they made her casket carefully, carving stars and angels on the inside.
Br. Joseph began to cry as he describes the inside, all brightness and cream. There was no possibility of an open casket funeral. “No one will see,” he told me. “They’re going to put a decomposing body in a body bag in there.” Tears still falling down his cheeks, his voice strengthened, “But this is what she deserved.”
His generosity and fierceness gives me a sense of what cathedral workers must have been like, the ones who lay on scaffolds, a deadly distance above the ground, to complete carvings that were much too high to ever be seen by the worshippers below. Their work, and Br. Joseph’s, is done for God, and for this one girl. The monks’ service to her in death is a fierce rejoinder to the way she was treated as disposable in life.
The monks don’t widely advertise their business, since, unlike a more conventional company, they want to keep from becoming too successful, too fast. They never want to switch to mass production. Their approach surprised the consultants hired to help them design their expanded factory. The production line was all in order, but the consultants recommended against the large windows the monks planned.
The outside world was a distraction, in the eyes of the designers. The monks were unmoved, and when I visited, the huge windows looked out on the surrounding fields, with a birdhouse perfectly positioned for viewing when a monk or a layman looked up from his tasks.
In the shining light of day, wood travels in a loop around the factory. Rough sawn boards are at the entrance, waiting to be planed flat and cut to the sizes needed. Coffins sit, held together with clamps as glue cures. Eventually, they travel into the staining room and from there loop back towards the entrance through the upholstery corridor. Finally, the finished pieces await loading, not far from the boards they began as.
When the monks build the floor of a coffin, nearly all of the planks can be cut with a jig to a set size, but the last few always need to be trimmed to fit. The bases (which will be covered by cloth) are often made of ash-beetle scarred wood that would be rejected for more decorative purposes. The wood is heat-treated to make sure any lurking beetles or eggs are dead.
But even though beetle is dead, wood is still living—a little breathing room is left between bottom planks for when humidity makes them swell. Otherwise, they’d force the top or foot panel out of true. The wood must be accommodated in its particularity, before it can receive a body. Each person laid to rest is similarly individual, even as they fill these standardized spaces.
Two of Laura Fanucci’s eight children are buried in the Trappists’ handiwork. Fanucci is a writer and the director of the Communities of Calling Initiative—a program for spiritual renewal in churches. She and her husband, Franco Fanucci, endured a long period of infertility before they conceived and safely delivered their first child. Their first boy was followed by a little brother, but their third child died in the first trimester.
Fanucci suspected something was wrong, and went to see the doctor when she was about six weeks along. Her doctor couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat, but tried to put the best spin on things, telling Fanucci that it was possible her dates were wrong and the baby was just too small for the heartbeat to be seen. The doctor didn’t talk too much about the possibility of miscarriage and didn’t discuss burial at all.
That meant that everything that came after came as a surprise. “I wish I would have known more in advance,” said Fanucci, who felt blindsided by the physical pain of miscarrying, since it had been described to her only as “a heavier period.” She also missed the opportunity to find and care for her child’s body.
After the miscarriage, she said, “I felt myself flailing, wanting somewhere to go.” She had always liked cemeteries, so she visited the nearest Catholic cemetery simply to have a place to mourn. She found, to her surprise, that there was a memorial stone in a corner for all babies lost before birth or stillborn. “I’d go there on anniversaries or on days when I just needed that to remember that baby.” It was a place of pilgrimage for her, and five years later it was where she would return to bury her twins, Maggie and Abby.
All twins are treated as high risk pregnancies, and when Fanucci and her husband learned that their girls were identical, they had even more appointments and monitoring. At about sixteen weeks, the doctors discovered that Maggie and Abby had twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. In this condition, the twins’ circulatory systems are enmeshed, and one twin starts getting too much blood and one too little.
Laura had to come in for ever more frequent ultrasounds, as the doctors tracked how the girls were doing, trying to give them as much time to grow in utero as possible, before their condition got too dangerous. By the end, Laura left the house every day with a hospital bag and a plan for who would watch her boys if today was the day the doctors decided the twins’ best chance was being delivered.
At twenty-three weeks, the doctors planned to try a laser ablation surgery, to close the errant blood vessels connecting Maggie and Abby. Before the surgery, a neonatologist from the NICU sat down with the Fanuccis to talk about what would happen if the twins had to be delivered. She remembers that he gave them a pamphlet that had the survival rates for micro-preemies, “It was pretty grim. He handed me that and just looked at me really intensely, and said, ‘These stats probably wouldn’t apply to your girls—they’re really, really sick.’”
It was the first moment in Laura’s recollection that it really felt like they might lose their girls. Even though she and her husband had been anxious and praying desperately, they kept seeing reassuring signs. “The whole hallway to the NICU is lined with these miracle babies who were born at the same time,” she remembered, “and they’re playing on playgrounds.”
Laura went in for surgery on a Saturday morning at twenty-four weeks. But the doctors had to call off the surgery part-way through, because one of the girls developed a bleed. The doctors monitored Laura and the babies, and, throughout the day, one of the twin’s movements began getting slower and weaker. All alternatives exhausted, the doctors sent Laura back into the OR for the second time that day—this time, for a c-section.
The one thing the Fanuccis had planned for, if worst came to worst, was baptism. Their parish was far from the hospital and they knew they might not have time for a priest to make it. Her husband went straight to the NICU with the girls after delivery and reached into both of their giant incubators to anoint their tiny heads and give them the sacrament.
It was a comfort to them both, then and in the days to come, that Franco had been able to baptize their daughters. Losses are hard in a particular way for fathers, Laura believes. Men “want to protect them, and they can’t.”
The girls both left their incubators when it was clear that, despite every effort of the doctors and nurses, they would not survive. Maggie was placed in her mother’s arms to be cradled and held for the final hours of her life. It was the same day she had been born. The next day, Abby too came out of the incubator and into the Fanuccis’ arms to spend her last hours with her parents.
The Fanuccis had their girls’ bodies cremated, but they put off any immediate plans for a funeral. They were overwhelmed by grief and by the physical toll of Laura’s two surgeries. They wanted to bury their daughters, but had no idea where to start. The hospital had given them a list of public cemeteries in Minneapolis, but they wanted the girls to be in a Catholic cemetery. Their own parish was suburban and didn’t have its own cemetery, nor a list of recommendations.
“Those urns sat on our dresser for months,” Laura recalled. “We both felt really unsettled about it, but it felt like one more impossibly hard thing to do.” In online support groups, she saw other moms post about keeping their children’s ashes near their beds or having them placed inside a teddy bear. That wasn’t what the Fanuccis wanted for their girls, though Laura understood why other parents were making other choices. “There’s a lot of strange secular flailing and grappling to know what to do. They do feel sacred and precious, and people don’t have rituals or a community to help them.”
In one online Catholic group for infant loss (to which I also belong), Laura saw the Trappist Caskets recommended but wasn’t ready to act. Laura was also attending an in-person support group where bereaved parents were encouraged to bring mementos that reminded them of their children. One mother whose son had been stillborn brought the memorial cross that the Trappists paired with her child’s casket. She passed the cross around the group and, when Laura held it, she decided to call.
Laura left a message at New Melleray and got a call back from one of the lay employees, who told her, “We were so shocked and saddened by your message.” The monks had never before gotten Laura’s request: would two premature girls be able to fit together into one infant casket? And, although it would be only one casket, could it be possible to have two crosses, one for each girl?
“It broke my heart again,” Laura said, just like it did every time she heard people’s reaction to the magnitude of her family’s loss. The Trappists sent the casket, and a handwritten card. But it wasn’t the end of their care for the Fanuccis. “Even a year or two after, we got Christmas cards from them,” said Laura. The monks were still praying, and they’d been planting trees to keep replenishing the ones they harvested for caskets. “What a seamless garment. What a testimony to their way in the world.”
The girls were buried in the cemetery Laura had been visiting since her first loss. It’s located on the way to the school her living children attend, so, initially, she would stop there every couple of days, often with her toddler in tow. Now she makes the visits around once or twice a month. Her husband took it on himself to keep bringing flowers to the girls’ grave, and the children like to go with him to help him choose the gift for their sisters. They can see their siblings’ plot, and the flowers they’ve chosen, from the road.
The whole family makes a visit on the girls’ important days in February, as well as on All Saints and All Souls Days, when Catholics remember the saints in heaven and pray for all the faithful departed.
The two memorial crosses are at home, in the Fanuccis’ bedroom. The concrete sign of the people who are missing is particularly important to Laura, because, she says, “we have kids who remember when I was pregnant with the twins and kids who don’t.” Being able to hold another mother’s cross helped her bury her children. Seeing her children pick up their sisters’ crosses and talk about the girls helps them be knit into the fabric of her family.
“The fear is that your child will be forgotten,” she says. “Anything that has your child’s name on it is so precious and such a validation of the truth of their existence.” She has held on to everything that has their name on it. And, for three consecutive days in February—the girls’ birthday, Maggie’s death, Abby’s death—she pulls it all out and puts the papers on the kitchen table, in the center of her family’s life together.
The crosses with the girls’ names, even the paperwork, can stay with Laura wherever she goes. But the graves, anchored to a particular plot in a particular city, would have to be left behind if the family moved away. I wondered whether Laura felt reluctant to leave her city, where she could visit her girls.
This had been a worry for my family, particularly when our fifth child to be lost, Camillian, turned out to be ectopic. In the space of just a few hours between diagnosis and surgery, my husband and I had to talk about where our baby might be buried, if the body was retrieved, and also where I might be buried, if something went wrong during surgery.
We lived in New York City, which has run out of graveyards in Manhattan proper. I didn’t want Alexi to have to get on a train out to Queens, to visit one of the vast spillover graveyards in a place we never went together. And we didn’t expect to live in Manhattan for too much longer, so it felt strange to bury me in a place he expected to move away from.
We were a long way from the expectations of Lehmann, who could see the steeple of her parish church from her office at the Trappist Caskets studio. It has a growing graveyard for parishioners, and she expects to be buried there one day. “I can’t imagine having to look outside where you live,” she told me. “That would be another sense of loss.”
In the short time we had, we thought about sending me to be buried in Pennsylvania, near his family, so that when he visited me, he could also visit them and be with people he loved. Thankfully, he wasn’t left alone to figure out whether this would be allowed.
Laura’s family faced the possibility of a move some time after the girls’ deaths, and she weighed the cost of leaving the familiar cemetery behind. If the family had kept the urns at home, they could easily move with them, but she still felt burial had been the right choice. There was a gift in not having the girls belong solely to her family.
“I’m called to let the whole community mourn with me,” she said. “I’m called for them to be in a place that’s not just my backyard. They’re not just my children—they’re baptized members of the body of Christ.”
Resting in the cemetery, they’re in a place where other people, who don’t know them, can see them and mourn them. After everyone who knew them in life is dead, they’ll still be there, she said. “Until the Lord comes back.”
Just as Laura walks around and prays for the children in other nearby graves, she trusts that other people will see her children and keep caring for them. “There’s a gift in letting your grief be joined to the community. There’s so much love in this place.”
A child, living or dead, is ultimately entrusted to more than just his or her parents. The dependency of a child, to be picked up, to be played with, to be taught, to be mourned at the end of a life of any length, goes beyond what a mother and father can satisfy alone. We remain dependent throughout our lives, though that need for others is most insistent and undeniable at the beginning and end of life.
No matter the age of the deceased, when Fr. Albrich prays for the recipients of caskets, he often returns to the image of a cradle. It’s an image he drew from interviews the company conducted with customers, asking them why they had chosen a Trappist casket. More than one person independently brought up the idea of a cradle, imagining entrusting a loved one to this box as they were once placed into a child’s bed. “When we talk about these mysteries,” said Fr. Albrich, “people talk like little children.”
It was as true of him as of the customers. His calling to the priesthood began after he survived cancer at 22 and spent a year at home with his parents, waiting to see if the cancer would return or if he would live. “One quiet evening, I conceived the idea of giving it all back to God, giving my life back to God.”
But what does that look like? At first, his only image of life with God was being a priest. But now, he explains it differently. “Imagine a five year old, playing with his toys who suddenly realized his dad is there. He goes over and sits on his lap and says, ‘It’s me.’ And Dad says, ‘It’s you.’” Once he knows his Father, Fr. Albrich said, worldly concerns fall away. “There’s no room for toys on that chair, Dad fills up that chair.”
Fr. Albrich started his casket work by learning to make domes—the lids of the premium caskets. A simple lid was essentially a single plane of wood, closing off the top. The domes swooped, curving in and up to support framed panels. It was the fanciest work I had seen in the shop. But now, Fr. Albrich told me seriously, he was learning to make wooden urns, to hold cremated bodies, and he asked me to pray for him. “I’m at the edge of my skill.”
I was confused—the urns were small enough to fit in my arms and were simple hinged boxes. Fr. Albrich took me into the workshop to see one, explaining it was their smallness and simplicity that made it so hard. Any error shows up. And the margin for error was smaller, too. For the domed lids, he had a 1/16″ tolerance for error. For urns, half that, just 1/32″.
Because the urns were so much smaller, they could be made from a single board, while the caskets necessarily required binding many together to form panels. If Fr. Albrich did everything right, the grain of that one board should flow, unbroken, around the corners of the urn, as though the box had been grown by nature, not shaped by his hands.
His prayer has followed his handiwork. Often, while working, he prays the Jesus prayer to himself (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”). “As I’ve gotten older, my prayer has become more and more simple.” Often, the prayer fades simply to the name: Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.“Monks love repetition,” he admits. Prayer and work repeat, lulling him, “freeing us to go inward.” When he works, memories bubble up, “and the memories are often accompanied by wonder.” And then the simple prayer changes: Thank you, thank you, thank you. As with his urns, the work of nature is reshaped and returned: the grain of his life glorified.
All the monks can do the actuarial math. Of the 21 professed monks, only two are under sixty years old and more than half are eighty years old or older. The youngest man is 37 and the oldest is 94—and a veteran of WWII. Fr. Albrich confesses that it seems paradoxical that, after coming to the monastery to “look for the things that are eternal” he finds himself in a community that is physically and institutionally fragile. But he remembers the words of St. Gregory the Great: “Virginity is stronger than death.” He tells me, “Whatever happens to the monastery, this mystery I’ve stepped into is forever.”