Illustration by for Len Churchill for Homemade Caskets: You Can Make a Coffin, Mother Earth News

When I was 20 years old, I helped my best friend die of cancer. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and also one of the most soul-satisfying. In the grand circuitry of life, there is nothing like the literal grounding of a death to complete that circuit. His close friends were involved in every aspect of his passing. And we made his coffin. I was not involved directly in that, and it was little more than a basic pine box with a handsome lining, but it was more beautiful to me than anything that could have been bought. People started working on it the moment he died and worked throughout the night to complete it. The whole experience was so intense, so profoundly human, that decades later, I still think about him and his dying on a regular basis. And I never stop feeling honored to have had that experience. I’ve been involved in several home births (our son was born at home) and several home deaths. It just doesn’t get any more DIY than that.

I was reminded of all of this when Dale tweeted a link to a moving piece on Salon, called Building my father’s coffin, by John Manchester. It’s definitely worth a read. Here’s an excerpt:

I lost myself in the rhythm of making it. When we were done screwing the sides to the bottom, I asked, “Are you sure it’s strong enough?” David picked up a length of strapping and said, “I think it’s fine, but just for you we’ll box all the edges with this.” When that was done even I was pretty confident that it would hold my father, and the strapping lent it a kind of elegance.

After lunch David looked at the box and shook his head. “It’s going to be hard to carry, hard to keep hold of, with us crowded in three to a side.” I saw us pallbearers at the funeral dropping it and gave David a look. He said, “We’ll make rails.” We went to the hardware store and got two 1-inch dowels and lag bolts.

By this point we were both starting to feel pride in our work. David said, “Let’s stain it.”

I said, “No, it’s supposed to be a plain pine box. Besides, if we leave it bare, people at the funeral will realize we built it.” He nodded.

[Thanks, Dale!]

Building my father’s coffin

Homemade Caskets: You Can Make a Coffin

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy person’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

  • samuel

    “I helped my best friend die of cancer.”

    This sentence sounds a bit morbid.

    • Gareth Branwyn

      Sorry the sentence struck you as morbid. It’s just a statement of fact. When friends are in need, you help them. When the sad reality occurs were the help they need is in dying with some love and dignity, you help them do that.

      • samuel

        The sentence makes it sound like the author had aided in the death of the friend.

        Perhaps it should have read like:
        “I helped my best friend who died of cancer.”

        • Gareth Branwyn

          I see your point, Samuel, but I still think I’ll keep the sentence the way it is.

          When you have someone you love, in your arms, dying, and they shudder and say: “Ew. Scary thought. I’m scared.” And you say: “It’s okay, bro. You’re surrounded by people that love you. It’s okay,” trust me, you’re “helping him die.”

          (BTW: He eventually went, a few minutes later, singing. That’s definitely the way I want to go out.)

          But you’re right, that statement puts the emphasis on the dying part. We’d actually spent months desperately trying to help him live (going through brutal rounds of surgery and chemo therapy), and when that didn’t work, we switched to helping him die with some dignity.

  • Colecoman1982

    Sorry, but this design is full of Fail. It is neither easy to escape in case of accidental live burial nor sturdy enough to stop a zombie from rising from the dead.

  • TotalMonkey

    Whatever happened to donating one’s body for scientific and medical research??? Why do we continue to support these concepts (embalming, interment, mortuaries, etc.) as though we were ancient Egyptians?

    Instead of unnecessarily using up resources (i.e. wasting land, coffin supplies, water, money) after you no longer need your body, why not donate your body and organs for the potential of maybe helping those that come after you?

    (Why am I restricting myself to questions this morning?)

    • Carnes

      I’m cool with not donating to science or medical research. Reason being i would like the living to respect my dead body (or what’s left of it) and medical people don’t usually care about dead meat. Reminds me of how a hunter treats a deer kill.

      The burial thing always seems off though. Won’t the world fill up with graves? People buried on top of people? Maybe burial at sea could solve that? For my burial i was thinking.. dig a hole, build a decent wood pyre, place body on the top, burn it, everything falls into the hole, and cover the hole. No head marker or anything. Just some random place out in the woods would be perfect. Preferably not where a super-mall will be built for a few years.

    • Gareth Branwyn

      In the case of my story above, it was in the country. He was buried without embalming, in a fairly thin pine coffin, on a family plot, with a wooden marker.

    • samuel

      Do they not return the body for burial after they’ve used it in medical research?

    • TotalMonkey

      I’m pretty sure once you’ve donated to research or study (as in med school cadavers) that, like with money, it’s gone for good. But really, does it bother you that much what happens to your body after you’re gone? Do you REALLY know or care what the Tooth Fairy does with your teeth after their gone? :D