Made in Eastern Iowa: From lumber to the final product at Trappist Caskets

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PEOSTA, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) As the tours come in each day, some of the people who work at Trappist Caskets believe their mission is much deeper than a typical business.

Trappist Caskets, in Peosta, is a key business of the New Melleray Abbey. Monks and lay people craft caskets and urns off lumber within the acreage.

“Sometimes it’s like they find us and I think it’s the work of the Holy Spirit,” said Marjorie Lehmann, who works in the office at Trappist Caskets, owned by the monks of the New Melleray Abbey. “We have bus tours that come in, up to 56 people that we can accommodate and a lot of people want to know about our ministry.”

Monastery Road, in Dubuque County, splits these two words with the monastery to the east and the casket manufacturing facility on the left.

Inside the work of making caskets and urns is about 20 lay people and ten monks.

“We have 3,500 acres and 1,400 (of that) is forest and they harvest the trees,” said Lehmann. “What happens is when people hear about Trappist Caskets and how this supports the monks because they’re self-sustaining and how that wood is harvested right from the forest, it’s not just the product, it’s the ministry.”

Operations manager Steve Stelken said the lumber is quite diverse off the acreage, between pine, walnut, oak, cherry and “a little bit of maple”.

“Our biggest seller would be the walnut,” said Stelken.

The process of taking the lumber from wood into the final product, even for a casket that might only be seen above ground for a day or two, is precise and painstaking.

Stelken describes the assembling of the pieces for a premium casket.

“What they’re doing on those tables is taking those pieces that were made prior to that and they’re laying them out to look at that casket,” said Stelken. “This is actually a side of that casket and these are individual pieces and went through different types of machining to get the nice bevels on it. They kind of come together like a big puzzle and they’re all matched by the grains.”

Extensive sanding of the wood follows, then spraying for a final and then installing the upholstery inside a casket.

“We also do custom lasering and engraving and pretty much tailored to what the customer’s needs are,” said Stelken. “We get the information from them and put it on. A lot of these do not have any engraving on them at all other than a cross. A lot of times dates of birth, death. Some people like to have inscriptions put on them.”

For the workers who are around caskets all of the time, a focus on the people whom the product is made for is an unspoken element that fills the factory. A stack of lumber marked “youth casket” is a somber jolt of a life that ended before it should have.

Lehmann noted a level of concern and ministry that workers must exude.

“They do have to have a certain sensitivity and understanding that we are unique that way,” said Lehmann. “As far as our caskets and what we provide to the public, we do this on an at-need basis and a pre-need basis.”

With each casket or urn from Trappist Caskets, Lehmann said the monks bless each one, with the name of the deceased person entered into the memorial book.

“A third thing, on the grounds and for the forest to be self-sustaining, they will plant a tree as a memorial to that family,” said Lehmann.