Notebook

Ars moriendi

‘Modern societies’, writes Emily Wilson, ‘are peculiar in the degree to which we segregate the dead from the living.’ Monks are in this respect blessedly countercultural. They live and die within an ancient wholeness. A monastic death is a community affair. The community watch with the dying brother, offering prayers and the comfort of friendship. When death occurs, the body is washed, then brought to the church with singing; there it remains, in the middle of choir, illumined by the paschal candle, always with a praying monk at its side, until it is carried out, again with song, to be buried in a grave dug by the brethren’s hands. A Cistercian is buried without a coffin, on a plank. It’s a way of honouring in death the simplicity that marks our life. It’s also a way of making explicit the symbolism of John 12:24: ‘Unless the grain of wheat…’ This tactile, familiar engagement with death is in no way morbid; on the contrary, it is reassuring and freeing, as those who attend a monastic funeral can testify and as many viewers of the film Outside the City have remarked. It is a way of healing the estrangement of what Wilson calls ‘our peculiar modern desire to mourn the dead without having to touch them.’