The Common Good

Matthew Kelty and the Beauty of a Good Death

Writer and Trappist monk Matthew Kelty died last week at age 95. His is an example of a good life and a good death. The Louisville Courier-Journal carried a wonderful tribute:

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As the abbey bell tolled slowly and as stiff gusts scattered the first drops of an incoming rainstorm, the Rev. Matthew Kelty was lowered into his grave in a twilight ceremony whose simple dignity matched his monastic calling. Kelty, perhaps the most public face of the Abbey of Gethsemani since the death of renowned author Thomas Merton, died Friday and was buried Monday afternoon following a funeral attended by dozens of fellow monks and priests and more than 100 visitors.

Kelty, a longtime chaplain to the monastery's retreat guests, was 95 -- the abbey's oldest monk. He was "lucid and interested up to the last" before dying during a midday nap following a brief illness, said the monastery obituary. Kelty, a one-time typist for Merton, published several books on spirituality himself. For many years, he spent hours each day counseling people who had come on retreat to the remote Roman Catholic monastery in Nelson County, Ky.

The Trappist approach to death is very simple. Death is welcomed as a sister and greeted with hospitality. The dying brothers are cared for in the monastery, at home. It is considered a high honor to be allowed to care for a brother as he meets death.

When a man dies, his body is washed and oiled, and he is wrapped in his clean cowl, the loose white garment that he has worn every day of his monastic life. The long sleeves are bound tightly to become his shroud. He is carried to the church where a vigil is kept over night and his brothers come and sing the psalms. A funeral Mass is celebrated and alleluias ring from the rafters for the one among them who has now raced on ahead through the gate of heaven.

The brothers have hand dug a grave in the community's grave yard. They nestle their brother's body into the womb of the earth and pull his hood over his face. "Earth to earth," the abbot prays, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." The brothers grab shovels and fill in the grave. Eventually, a very simple marker will be placed there.

When I visited Fr. Kelty's monastery back in 2004, I went to see the place where Thomas Merton, America's most famous monk, was buried.

"His grave is out past the cedar tree," says the woman in the abbey gift shop. It is an icy Monday morning on the back roads of Kentucky's bluegrass country. We've come out past the Jim Beam bottling plant on Route 248 in Clermont. Out past Stephen Foster's "old Kentucky home" in Bardstown. Out past the tiny sign on Route 31 that says simply "Trappist." Past Monk's Creek and Monk's Pond. And past a gate that says "God Alone." Now, near a snow-laden cedar tree, there is a white metal cross. On it is written: Fr. Louis Merton, died December 10, 1968.

There is a palpable quiet that wraps a Trappist grave. Not the absent sound of isolation, but rather the beauty of held breath between choruses of alleluia. Go with God, brother Matthew.

For more:
Watch Fr. Kelty reading Merton's prayer
Rev. Matthew Kelty of Abbey of Gethsemani buried in twilight ceremony
Out Where the Psalms Are Sung by Rose Berger
The Poetry of a Soul: A Monk's Story

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners, blogs at www.rosemarieberger.com. She's the author of Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood available at store.sojo.net.

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