A Time to Die (extract)

The Carthusians are not afraid of leaving this world. The cemetery is in the middle of the large cloister. Every day, beginning in the novitiate, the fathers have walked beside the enclosure in order to get to the church.

When a Carthusian dies, the whole community gathers in the cell of the deceased for the lifting of the body. The body is led in procession to the church. In the choir, between the stalls, the deceased is no longer alone. Near the body laid on the floor, the monks pray for him.

The Carthusians themselves dig the graves that welcome the bodies of their own. The deceased is secured to a simple board lowered into the clay soil. The cemetery is not large; regularly, the monks have to empty the old graves by hand to make room. The skulls and bones are first set aside before being put back in the grave at the same time as the new body.

Traditionally, the latest novice to enter the monastery holds the processional cross, placed at the foot of the grave. It is he who most clearly sees the body of his elder and the hood lowered over the face.

According to the directives of Guigues, fifth prior of the Grande Chartreuse and legislator of the order, who wrote the “Statutes of the Carthusians” at the beginning of the twelfth century, the head of the deceased is turned toward the conventual church. The young monk watches the four Carthusians designated by the prior to throw in the shovelfuls of dirt, sometimes pebbles, to close the grave. He hears the muffled sound of clumps of earth that fall on the body. The verb “to bury” takes on its full meaning. The community waits until the grave is filled.

Since the founding of the order, funeral days have been considered moments of celebration. The Carthusians eat, as an exception, in the refectory; in ordinary times, they come here on Sundays and for solemnities. If the funerals fall on a fast day, it will not be observed. In the evening, they will also have a full meal in their cell.

After the burial, the community meets in the Chapter room. The prior gives a sermon and recalls the life of the deceased. In general, during the recreation that follows the funeral, the Carthusians speak of the brother who just died.

They can come into the chapel of the dead to reflect near the bones of the first Carthusians from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A few paces from the cells, the companions of Bruno sleep in this sad and somber oratory. Their ancient skulls rest under the high altar. On hiking days, the Carthusians come to this place to pray before leaving to climb the mountain trails.

In the cemetery, there are no names on the graves. On one side, thin, black wooden crosses indicate the graves of the fathers and lay brothers. On the other side, stone crosses are reserved for the last earthly dwelling of the priors. The Carthusians choose to disappear from the eyes of the world and then from their own brothers. Often, they are incapable of finding the precise grave of a monk in the cemetery. The hermits die without leaving a trace. Forgetfulness immediately follows death.

In the nineteenth century, the monks made an astonishing discovery. While digging a grave, next to the oldest ones, they came upon a perfectly preserved corpse. Its preservation, after decades in the ground, was a miracle. The monks ran to the Reverend Father. His response was final: “Close the grave, dig next to it, and don’t tell anyone about it.” Similarly, in the middle of the seventeenth century, in the cemetery of the old Carthusian monastery in Paris, at the site of the current Luxembourg garden, miracles were multiplying on the grave of a lay brother who had died in the odor of sanctity. Dom Innocent says the prior came to the place to address the deceased: “In the name of holy obedience, I forbid you to perform miracles.” The extraordinary phenomena ceased immediately.

Picture: Tamino Petelinšek (location: Pleterje Charterhouse).
Text: extract from chapter 8 of the book "A Time to Die" (Nicolas Diat, 2018). Ignatius Press: San Francisco.