Thursday, December 18, 2008


(photo: All Souls Day at the Sisters' cemetery, Saint Benedict's Monastery)

Another of the more well-known Sisters at the monastery died this week. Sister Nancy Hynes celebrated her Golden Jubilee, 50 years in community, this past summer. She was a strong personality, outspoken and even, at times, radical. She taught in the English Department at the college for 32 years, and published a critical edition of the work of Mariella Gable, OSB, and J. F. Powers, another well-known Catholic writer who taught at the college. The college named the Sister Nancy Hynes Women Center in her honor last year, when they opened their newly renovated student center.

We received several compliments on the obituary, and it's true that S. Olivia and I put considerable effort into it. I went through three proofs with the St. Cloud Times to get the line breaks, spelling, and italics right. Several Sisters stopped by my office to share other stories of S. Nancy, something that has not happened with other deaths at the monastery. One told me how deeply disappointed Nancy was that Hillary Clinton wasn't elected president. She also shared her favorite homily by S. Nancy, about "cleaning up your signs." She said it twice before she explained: "It was about the signs of the cross." She didn't like all the messy, rushed signing she was seeing, and advised people to more clearly trace out the cross, remembering the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. At the funeral's opening prayer before the procession into the church, the prioress invited everyone, if they were comfortable, to say the Lord's Prayer as Nancy always said it, "Our Father and Mother, who art in heaven..."

We waited a long time on Tuesday for the funeral arrangements to be announced, which was odd, because S. Nancy had cancer and had been in hospice care since early fall. Her death was not a surprise. However, I learned when the announcement came out that she was being cremated. This is a first for the monastery. It is a first, but it is not sudden. The presence of cremated remains at a funeral has been allowed in the Catholic Church since 1997, and there is a prayer for use at the burial and liturgical instructions. In 2001 the monastery took up the issue at a chapter meeting, and had extensive presentations and discussion of the option. The Sisters who request it go through a process and fill out an application. One person described it as a "trial period" to see how it works and what the community response is. Another described it as an "interim period." So far a small but significant number of Sisters, about a dozen, have signed up for this option from a community of more than 250.

Several Sisters are not for it. Two winced when I mentioned it. One said she had "not come around to it yet," and "was having a hard time with it." I asked the other Sister why she wasn't for it, and she said: "It's so harsh. It's so unnatural. There isn't even fire-- it's intense heat. The whole thing is very harsh." The presence of that box of remains would remind her of the process that her Sister's body had undergone, reducing it to ash. I don't think embalming is a very "natural" process either, but I can see her point. When I asked the reasons why Sisters would choose cremation I heard the same list: "The cost, and to save space in the cemetery, and environmental reasons." The Sister who wasn't happy about it said there was also new evidence that it is not environmentally sound, because the process uses so much energy.

S. Gen's sister died close to Christmas a few years ago and was cremated. She had been a member of the monastery but left in the mid-1970s. She had a viewing and funeral with the body, but was cremated for burial in the monastery cemetery. It meant the family could reconvene on her birthday in May for the burial ceremony, which S. Gen said was a good thing. She also said what had mattered most was that they spent time with the body in the hours after her sister died, while making the arrangements. She said that "in the old days" they were told that the soul didn't immediately leave the body, and she was glad that now they don't take the body from the family right away. S. Nancy died at about midnight, and early the following morning there had been a small prayer service with the body at Saint Scholastica with her family and the Sisters who live there. S. Gen also said that, because of her sister's experience, some Sisters were asking her about the burial. One wanted to know if she would be able to toss in a flower. Gen told her, "Yes, the hole is just smaller. You can't throw in a whole bouquet, but a flower is fine."

The funeral was one of the best I've ever attended. The readings were wonderful, starting with Isaiah's "Comfort, O Comfort my people," and then Paul's letter asking "Death where is thy victory? O Death where is thy sting?" and for the gospel, the opening of the story of Lazarus. The homily, by S. Theresa Schumacher, focused on Mary and Martha in the gospel reading. After Communion one of S. Nancy's nieces played a Bach intermezzo on the upright piano.

I was there to take photos for the archives of this "first" in the community. I took photos of the procession of Sisters into the church. I tried to capture the moments when Sisters reached out and touched the box of remains. S. Nancy's friend and colleague in the English Department, S. Mara Faulkner, carried the remains, the sole "pall bearer." What struck me was when one Sister barely brushed the box and then gave S. Mara's arm a good squeeze. That would not have happened with a coffin. The focus shifted to the community of mourners, S. Mara as a representative.

The substitution of a box of remains for a coffin with a body is not what I'll remember about this funeral. I'll remember how much Nancy's brother looked like her, and how beautifully he read the "Comfort, O Comfort my people" reading. I'll remember that Brahms intermezzo, how it broke for a moment when the page-turner, another niece, wasn't quite on the ball, and how it rose and fell and gave us time to sit in silence and pray for the family and remember S. Nancy.

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