When the first Handmaid of the Precious Blood to pass away was buried in New Mexico in the Spring of 1962 a tradition began by the hand of Providence. The cemetery had been an apple orchard and the remaining trees were in bloom. The Archbishop of Santa Fe celebrated the Mass. At the graveside, just as the casket was lowered, a strong breeze stirred, sending down a shower of apple blossom petals into the open grave atop the casket. So the custom may have begun then of each Handmaid throwing not fistfuls of earth into the grave, but flowers.
The difficulty came with living in a mountain desert climate with nearly constant drought conditions. Flowers were hard to grow and not cheap to buy. So, over the years, tiny artificial roses (sometimes crafted by gifted Handmaids) were tossed in with our final prayers around the grave as we would intone the solemn Salve Regina. It became a settled custom and, while in New Mexico, our dynamic duo Charlie and Susan Pate, would go to careful and loving lengths to prepare the grave so all of us could safely gather around for the flower drop and Salve Regina as the Sister was lowered slowly into the grave. Given the climate, we rarely had to worry about wet dirt walls caving in as we stood on the rim. Charlie and Susan would have plywood covered in astroturf steadying our perch. Vaults were not required. Charlie would simply construct a plywood box inside the grave.
Funerals and burials are not mournful and sad affairs for nuns. We rejoice over Sisters having completed their journeys and singing beautiful hymns is appropriate. The solemn Salve Regina is reserved almost exclusively for the graveside ceremony in Handmaid life. Or it was. We never imagined moving to Tennessee or how, when God asked that of us, that it would change this little family tradition.
What’s a vault got to do with it?
Vaults to encase the casket are required in Tennessee. The entire relocation and re-burial of our Resurrection cemetery in Jemez Springs to Benton, TN is a story unto itself. Handmaid burials would henceforth be done differently due to the vault requirements. Since the casket had to be placed in the vault before being moved to the grave, we could not very well stand around en masse as if inspecting the delicate and precise work, waiting until we could gather around for the lowering. For that historic burial Bishop Stika instead, with his good singing voice, intoned a simple Salve Regina under the guest tent before we dispersed and allowed the work of vaulting and lowering and covering to take place.
But God decided Sister Rose Anne of Jesus would have things slightly adjusted. The Easter flowers and others around Mater Dei that Sister Rose Anne so diligently planted, tended, and weeded not very long ago were in full blossom the day of her funeral. Lovingly, another Handmaid carefully picked the dianthus, the fresh and fragrent knock-out roses, and other small blossoms and filled a flower basket full on the morning of her funeral. As a family we gathered around her for the ceremonies of placing her ring, her rosary, and a crown of flowers on her head. Each Sister had a quiet moment of prayer with her, blessing the body with holy water, and placing one of the real blossoms from the basket alongside Sister Rose Anne. Later, the pall bearers were invited to do the same but we still had a large amount of blossoms remaining.
After the final commendation Sister’s casket was moved to the rear of the Chapel and before the pall bearers approached, we paused to sing the entire solemn Salve Regina as we would have done at the graveside in New Mexico. And we didn’t forget those extra flowers in the basket. Too small to vase. Too precious to discard. After all was done and the cemetery was again returned to pristine condition thanks to Bridges Funeral Home, we brought the remaining flowers and scattered them atop her grave and then placed one blossom on each of the other graves. Although we had to do it differently, we had sang the solemn Salve we loved so well to send our Sisters off with and we had lavished Sister Rose Anne with real petals she herself had tended. In a Tennessee way, perhaps we are renewing an old custom in this, our 70th year.