Saturday, May 10, 2008

After Sister Death Comes Brother Tim

“So, Brother. Tell me. What happens after a friar dies?”
I stared expectantly at Brother Timothy. Without blinking, he calmly replied: “Well, I expect that he either goes to heaven or the other place.”

Well, that’s not exactly what I intended by my question. What I really wanted to know is, what happens to a friar’s personal effects—his stuff—when he passes on? If anyone has the answer to that question, it would Brother Timothy Arthur. No, Brother Tim is not our provincial mortician; he is, rather, our provincial archivist. And yes, there is a difference.

We sat in his office at Old Mission Santa Barbara (California). The walls were lines with files and display cases, all neatly organized and carefully arranged. Brother Tim opened a copy of our provincial Statutes, or regulations adapted to local circumstances. For a second, I winced in embarrassment. I hadn’t cracked that particular book since my novitiate, ‘lo these many years ago. Quietly and purposefully, he pointed out the very specific policies and procedures to be implemented in the event of a friar’s death.

It all came back to me. The year was 1998. I was just getting ready to make my solemn profession. A letter arrived from our Provincial Office. I hurried to slice open the envelope, expecting some last-minute instructions for the ceremony. Instead, I found a form letter asking me to designate the kind of music I would like for my funeral (!) and the names of relatives and others to whom I would like to leave my personal belongings after my death. Here I hadn’t even received the golden handshake of solemn profession and I was already within a hair’s breadth of the clammy grasp of Sister Death. Talk about a reality check! Give me a break, guys.

Still, as harsh and unsettling as it may seem at first, the truth is that life and death are side by side. So are their attendant practicalities. Brother Tim patiently explained: After a friar dies, his room is usually sealed by the guardian or himself (the archivist). We look in our files or in those of the deceased to see if he has left any written bequests. We’re not talking about big items here—real estate, pricey jewelry or the like. It’s all remarkably small potatoes. Who do you want to be the recipient of your family photos and other personal memorabilia? What kind of funeral service (songs, readings, etc.) do you want? Where and how would you like to be buried? The truth is that a friar has very little in the way of material possessions—clothes, music, books, maybe a stamp collection or a camera.

It’s all pretty down to earth. Not that the friars necessarily are, though. We’re human beings, too. We don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about death or planning our funerals. We put things off, lose our paperwork, get distracted and wander. Some brothers will leave behind just a few drawers of old and highly used clothing. Others are pack rats extraordinaire, with piles of books, newspapers, and files crammed into every available inch of space in their rooms. Some brothers are meticulous and dutiful—personal papers in apple pie order in a metal storage box in case of fire. But don’t count on it. Not a few of our confreres would require the services of a private detective to find their stuff. And according to Brother Tim, more than one friar has had the novel idea of stashing his passport, wallet, and other personal papers in the bottom of his wastebasket as an ill-advised precaution against theft.

Ready or not, Sister Death will come visiting. And so will someone like Brother Tim—trying in his patient, gentle, and methodical way to respect the brother’s last wishes and at the same time to preserve for future generations something of the material legacy (journals, collections of homilies, publications, correspondence, and the like) that witnesses to a friar’s life and ministry.//

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