Remembering the Dead in the Abbey

We buried two beloved confreres at Saint John’s Abbey this week, Fr. Barnabas on Tuesday and Br. Nicholas on Thursday.

Our custom is to remember the dead by placing two candles by a plate turned upside down in the refectory for 30 days after the death:

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This old monastic custom, which had been dropped after the Second Vatican Council, was revived some years ago at the urging of Br. Frank Kacmarcik. When I told family and friends of the new (old) custom, the most common reaction was a bit of horror – almost as if we were drinking out of skulls as some religious have done, I’m told, to “keep death daily before one’s eyes” (cf. Rule for Monasteries, ch. 4).

My parents (my dad was alive then) recalled that there had been times of mourning in southern Minnesota many decades ago, but this too fell away. For a year after the death of one’s spouse, they explained to me, it was understood that one wouldn’t attend public entertainment such as a dance or movie. One still went out for Sunday Mass, but wore black. Then “they got it down to six months” and people were seen sooner at things. Then it was reduced quickly, and then it was gone.

I don’t know what psychologists would say about all this. But we Christians should take care to remember the deadly with loving respect, and to pray for them. We don’t want to be morbidly obsessed with the afterlife or unduly fearful about God’s judgment, and it is for good reason that the Second Vatican Council called for a reform of the funeral rites to “express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death,” which includes the resurrection.

But I for one am glad  that we once again remember deceased monks in the refectory for 30 days, and I hope there are people around to pray for my wretched soul when I go.

What do you think about our ritualization of remembering and praying for the dead, and about possible ways to ritualize a time of bereavement and healing? I look forward to your thoughts.

8 comments

  1. How opportune to hear of another tradition for our beloved dead! I was just reflecting on things like this and reflectively writing, so this is very timely. In my family , whose culture comes from Ilocos Sur, we have just buried our matriarch who embraced Filipino culture and tried her best in sharing that with her entire family.

    For Ilocanos from Ilocos sur, the response to death is to grieve and to prepare for an elaborate send- off, always with food, prayer and community. This is shown by fixed intervals of prayer beginning on the first day of death,to the ninth day and then 9 days before the fortieth to the fortieth day with a Eucharist to end the immediate time of mourning…my family doesn’t know it but yes, scriptural. In spite of the somber atmosphere, the occasion shows strong family ties that extends to the rest of the community eliminating the feeling of aloneness but embracing the ever growing sense of Church

    These devotional and liturgical experiences ritualize our bridge of faith and culture, giving meaning to loss and an explicit way to live into the Paschal Mystery. Through Evening Prayer with devotion to the Rosary, a deep and profound Litany of Saints adapted with the response, “pray for him/her” and feasting together, we come together to celebrate what we believe-that Christ is our center, that death is not the end, and that our deceased loved ones work are now at rest but continued by us.

    During these gatherings, a beloved practice that comes from an ilocano (in out case, Ilocos Sur) tradition is of sharing with our deceased the first foods that we would eat for any gathering. This is called the “atang.” This small sharing would be placed before a picture of the dead. It shows out respect, our affection and a reminder to “continue living each day, so that after our earthly life is done, we may be reunited with those we love when every tear will be wiped away” (adapted from BCP)

  2. In my own lifetime (I’m not 40 yet) periods of mourning and half-mourning were obvious in women’s dresses; black ties for male relatives for a period too; the immediate time between death and funeral (typically three days) where everything professional stopped for the immediate family; Christmas cards not being sent at the Christmas immediately after death (still followed); neighbours pulling the drapes/curtains over the windows during the day time in the day or two following a neighbour’s death. Much of the year-long mourning, etc. is gone, but elements remain.

  3. We say “I believe in the resurrection of the dead” yet live in a culture that does everything to deny the reality of death. And so recovery from the pain of loss takes much longer than for those in cultures who face death, with all its ugliness, straight on. Continue your fine custom. I’ll practice it myself and recommend it to others.

  4. In such times, we do or say things that reflect our connection, our loss, our hope. Such rituals of remembrance often help us to better recognize or understand our relationship to our Creator God.

    One of my best friends died a couple years ago. We knew each other for almost 25 years and grew quite close, even though we lived a thousand miles apart. Knowing that he was dying of cancer, I had made plans to visit him, but he died less than two weeks before that would have happened.

    The weekend of his funeral, I was at Gethsemani Abbey. With this extended time for reflection, I found myself continually thinking of him. After lunch, I was sitting in reflection, and an entire haiku presented itself in an instant. It was a moment of inspiration, a gift from God. Here’s the poem:

    As if I were here
    You gather, and then you weep
    As though I were gone.

  5. Beautiful custom, I find as a priest that people want to “move on” too quickly. I’m very happy you shared this. Thank you.

  6. Perhaps Christians need a form of “sitting shiva.” The monastic custom revived is a thoughtful one. Anthony, you will be remembered prayerfully by many, but I don’t think your soul is/will be wretched.

  7. I also appreciate the memorials in choir on their anniversary for monks who have died. It reminds me to keep death daily before my eyes. Today we remembered Fr. Sylvan Bromenshenkel, a beloved monk who worked many years in the Bahamas, who died a decade ago. Back in the day of holy cards when someone died, we kept them in our missal. Now I keep the cards of monks from St. John’s who have died in my Bible. Some day, Good Lord willing I outlive you, your card will slip into my Bible, too.

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