by Michael Schmiedicke
My grandma was in her 90's and had been failing for some time. Knowing that the end was at least near, if not imminent, my Mom asked if I would make a casket for her. "I know it may sound a little odd, but I am afraid that if I wait till she dies, you might not have enough time."
I had never really thought about making a casket before, but I said I would be glad to and started poking around on the internet, looking for ideas and general dimensions. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that funeral homes were effectively required to bury you in whatever casket you showed up with and we had a lot of freedom as to the design. Local regulations required a burial vault, so I had to make it fit inside that, but other than that, no other real requirements.
I was working with reclaimed wormy chestnut at the time and was in love with its rich grain and antique character. I pulled together some of the nicest planks I could find and got started. My brothers Jake and John came down to help as well, and what might have been a slightly 'different' but relatively straightforward woodworking project became something very special. We talked about Grandpa, who had died before they were born, and what it was like when I was a kid and the many days I would spend over at their house, playing with cousins, going fishing with Grandpa, working with Grandma in the garden. We talked about what the last few years had been like for them after I left the house, how it had been with Grandma there as Mom and Dad took her in to care for her, the good days and the bad days, the challenges and the comic relief.
We put a lot of laughter into that casket, a lot of good memories, a lot of love. Working with our hands set our hearts free to roam a little; rather than the crushing helplessness that so many feel when faced with the death of someone they care about but can do nothing to prevent, we were able to put our hands to a last, real service to that woman. Rather than wringing them in useless isolation, we brought our hands together, to work. It opened up other doors for us as well. If we could build the casket, couldn’t we dig the hole too? And why shouldn’t the great grandkids bring along their shovels and bury her body after we lowered it into the ground? And not in sorrow, but in hope! Rather than seeking to shelter them from something frightening, why not initiate them gently into life's greatest mystery? Our family had enough farmers in it for us to know that every seed planted in the ground will rise up again one day into something new and amazing.
Grandma's eventual burial service became a pretty special event, and it all began with my Mom's willingness to imagine something different. Realizing that not everyone has the tools and the wherewithal to build their loved one's casket on their own, I at least wanted to offer people something made by hand, a final gift made especially and particularly for them, a piece of work the family had a hand in designing, in filling with their memories and their love. A last, real service.