Simple Beauty Enhances First Green Burial at Motherhouse
In a November 2016 article for Interchange, Cecily Jones wrote, “… interest in a natural burial (formaldehyde-free preparation of the body; a biodegradable coffin or container; perhaps only a shroud) has been high at the Motherhouse for at least six years, spurred on by presentations, films, discussions, information sessions and then specified wishes.” As explained in November’s Our Days at Loretto Motherhouse newsletter, a 6-acre wooded area has been designated for the Nature Preserve Cemetery. A few weeks ago when Carol Kaiman took advantage of the tour of the space, she was quite taken with its simple beauty, and her expressed desire to be buried there was granted sooner than anyone imagined.
A funeral Mass for Carol was celebrated Jan. 2 following her death Dec. 23, 2017. After the liturgy we processed through the church and courtyard to the front parking lot. The 72 x 24 x 16 inch coffin that Susan Classen had made was placed in the hearse. The congregation and Carol’s sister, brother and their spouses filled the 10 processional cars. When Pauline Albin entered her designated car, she carried the smoking incense with her. A collective cry of possible suffocation soon arose from the backseat passengers, and the censer was placed on the ground outside the car until the procession started. Then it was scooped up and held at arm’s length outside the window with Pauline often repeating the phrase, “I’m just doing what I was told.” The frigid 9-degree draft from the open window was preferable to death by incense. The cars preceded the hearse along the graveled farm road from the convent to the farmhouse, past the silos and finally stopped in the unloading area at the cemetery.
A cart, which Susan had converted from a tool cart, was at the ready at the path’s entrance into the wooded area. The platform of the cart rested on a frame which was held up by two bicycle wheels, one on each side of the cart. A handrail was affixed to the bed for those who would be helping with the transport. A yokelike devise was built on the front of the cart so it could be pushed and guided. When the hearse arrived, the coffin was removed and set on the ground near the cart. The coffin lid was removed and the shrouded body taken out and placed on the cart. For greater stability, a narrow board had been placed under the corpse and a favorite bedspread of Carol’s wound around it and her body. After the shrouded corpse had been secured on the cart, cedar branches and holly were gently added around it, and the procession headed for the burial site, a three-block distance.
A priest blessed the area and then blessed and prayed over the body. Earlier that morning Keith Hamilton had dug the 3-foot-deep grave, and cedar and holly branches had been spread over its floor. The body was lowered into the grave with ropes operated by Don Nalley, Steve Gootee, Joe Graves, Joey Edelen, Susan and Jessie Rathburn. The ropes were quickly removed when the corpse had settled on the floor. It was somehow comforting to see the body resting on such soft beauty. A few more cedar branches were added before the pile of earth was replaced in the grave. As if to help ease the seriousness of the ceremony, Anthony Mary Sartorius’ cell phone rang at an unprepared moment. It was almost comical to watch her struggle with many layers of clothing to find and silence the annoyance. Her protective blanket fell to the ground in her struggle but was quickly thrown over her tentlike by a helpful companion.
In spite of the extremely cold temperature, the whole process was memorable for its smooth and reverent flow. The attention to detail helped us to experience a feeling of grateful closure to our final act of kindness toward Carol. As we returned to the convent, the dinner bell was ringing, bringing us back from our first green burial event, back to our normal routines.