This past semester for me focused inordinately on death. I taught a course called “War in the American Memory” and covered the Holocaust in World Civilizations. And then—even though commencement was already over—fellow blogger Miles Mullin piled on with a terrific post on how modern Americans outsource death and dying. It’s the semester that won’t die!
Death even pervaded an annual trip that I take with a group of Asbury students to the Abbey of Gethsemani, located about an hour west of Lexington, Kentucky. One of the main attractions at Gethsemani, of course, is the grave of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk whose 1948 spiritual autobiography Seven Storey Mountain sparkles with lively descriptions of a boyhood in Europe, a bohemian young adulthood in the bustling streets of New York City, and a new monk’s life of quiet contemplation in the pastoral rolling hills of Kentucky. Ahead of the hippies, he interpreted monastic spirituality and community to the world. In fact, his grave, which rests in a gently sloping hill next to the Trappists’ chapel, bears witness to simplicity and community. His stone is identical to his colleagues’ markers. Death is universal, the modest stone suggests, leveling profound and simple minds.
Even the Welcome Center features death. A film replays the burial of a Trappist monk, whose unembalmed body wrapped in a simple white shroud, is lowered by ropes into a deep hole. Next door to the film room is a gift shop. What drew me first was the Trappists’ amazing bourbon fudge. But the shop also sells caskets. They start at $1,000 for the “Simple Rectangular” model and top out at a still-reasonable $3,400 for a “Premium” cherry model. No worries—if you live outside Kentucky, you still can buy your very own Trappist casket on the Internet. They can deliver it within two days in the continental U.S. (Or if you plan ahead and want your furniture to pull double-duty, you might consider the Coffin Table. I love the ad copy: “Not only can it store books and other knick-knacks like personal mementos, but its ultimate goal is to store YOU – or what remains of you – when you pass on to the next life.”)
The aura of death at Gethsemani did not feel unduly dark or foreboding. It rather felt like a reprieve from the sterility of modern life and death. Even the roads that took us to Gethsemani testify to the monastery’s unmodern sensibilities. The winding, idiosyncratic Monks Road on which the monastery is located contrasts sharply with the road we took out of Lexington: the Martha Layne Collins Blue Grass Parkway, an efficient four-lane divided highway that cuts an unnatural path straight through rock. The feeling that I was leaving the twenty-first century for the nineteenth century evoked a kind of nostalgia in me–even though I’ve never actually lived any golden age. Nevertheless, Gethsemani’s practice of death as a natural part of life, instead of an artificial thing to be cordoned off in a hospital morgue, has striking appeal for postmoderns drawn to earthier approaches such as this. My students certainly expressed a lot of enthusiasm for our trip.