A recent death at our monastery has got me thinking about the topic of dying. Even though St. Benedict instructs us in his Rule to keep death always before our eyes (Ch. 4), I do not particularly like talking or thinking about death. I know that my deceased loved ones are with God, but somehow it always still comes as a shock that they will never walk on this earth again…I will never again see their faces, never hear their voices, etc.
Despite the fact that I am uneasy with death, I have to admit that Sisters do death well. A Sister’s death is less of a tragedy and more of a celebration of her life. The community gathers with family members and friends to pray and share stories about the deceased Sister. Our wakes appropriately incorporate the Liturgy of the Hours, the community prayer that weaves its way through every Benedictine Sister’s life. While there is sadness, there is also a definite sense that the Sister has gone on to a better place where she is in a state of bliss that we cannot even comprehend. It is this sense that allows Sisters to really rejoice even as they are mourning a loved one.
It is not exactly correct to say that my Sisters are laidback when it comes to death…that sounds a bit crass! But, because of our faith, we do not panic or fall into great despair with each death. When I first came to the community, I was startled and a bit horrified by the Sisters’ seemingly casual embrace of death. A few of the practices that took me by surprise:
*The deceased Sister’s body is laid out (open casket) in our gathering space right outside of our chapel. That means that many times a day, just going about my ordinary business, I might pass a dead body…this took me a little while to get used to!
*Keeping with the Benedictine value of sharing things in common, the deceased Sister’s clothes are passed around to other Sisters who wear roughly the same size. I remember clearly the first time I saw a living Sister completely decked out in a deceased Sister’s outfit just a couple days after the funeral. Since the deceased Sister had worn the outfit a lot while she was living, seeing someone else in it made me do a definite double-take!
*A Sister’s bedroom becomes a free-for-all a few days after her death. Sisters are encouraged (yes encouraged!) to go into the deceased Sister’s room and take whatever we would like (after the family has been through it). I was at first scandalized by this. However, I realize now how in line that practice is with our beliefs as Benedictines. We believe that we own nothing on this earth (all belongs to God), and so we do not consider personal ownership terribly important. As a Benedictine, the deceased Sister would want her clothing and other things to be used in practical ways by the community.
So despite the fact that I am sometimes still surprised at our community’s “casual” approach to death, I know that it comes from our strong belief that death is not a sad ending at all, but a beautiful beginning. And even though I have taken a few things from deceased Sisters’ rooms over the years, I have not gotten to the point where I can wear their clothing. That might take some more time…