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.