Some years ago when I was in the seminary, an older priest in a rectory where I stayed had an unusual piece of furniture in his sitting room. He used it like a chest or large travel trunk. He stored books in it. I told him it looked like a coffin. He said it was. “One day I will be buried in that.”
Sure enough, at his funeral some ten years later, I saw that plain pine box that had sat against the wall in his sitting room. What once held the treasure of his books waiting to be read again now held the treasure of his body waiting to rise again.
Coffins, often called caskets today, have become a bit too removed from the old wooden boxes that once sufficed for most. Made of strong steel, with airtight seals and cushioned satin interiors, they seem designed to insulate not only the dead, but also us from the reality that the earth must reclaim our bodies until the great resurrection of all the dead. Add to that the fact that these sealed capsules are then placed in concrete liners (to preserve the level of the round above), and burial really doesn’t seem to be burial anymore. It’s more like storage in an underground basement or cellar. Modern life can be very insular, even in death.
I do not wish to appear insensitive. Burial customs vary from age to age and have various things to recommend them and to critique about them. Death is perhaps the hardest reality we face, not merely our own but also the deaths of those we love.
The beautiful video below shows a man making a traditional wooden coffin. For him it is obviously a very spiritual act, deeply rooted in his Catholic Faith. Such care and thoughtfulness goes into each action of the process!
It might strike you as odd to watch a man build a coffin. But take the time to watch this three-minute video. The coffin maker speaks great wisdom and love as he plies his craft. It is clear this is no mere box; it is a precious and sacred container for the body and a doorway for the soul.
Here are a couple of his quotes that I find especially meaningful:
I never feel like it’s finished. But I guess that’s a fit thing since that’s how we likely feel at the end of our lives too.
I think one of the most important aspects of the coffin is that it can be carried. I think we’re meant to carry each other. Carrying someone you love is very important when we deal with death … to know that we played a part and shouldered our share of the burden … If we make it too easy we deprive ourselves of a chance to get stronger so that we can carry on.
Enjoy this strangely beautiful video.
The Coffinmaker from Dan McComb on Vimeo.
9 Replies to “The Wisdom and Holy Craft of a Coffin Maker”
Having worked in the health field since 1974 I have witnessed the gamut of life suffering and end stage outcome. I was reflecting on this just yesterday while performing a cardiac ultrasound on a 93 year old man who was bed ridden, somewhat coherent with dementia but unable to speak due to a stroke. He was miserable and helpless. I asked God to show him mercy, spare me such a fate and wondered how I would handle such a challenge. He wanted something but couldn’t speak, just moan sound’s. I offered him water, he parched but he declined. I think he just wanted to be left alone and for God to take him. This video brings into account the other aspect of final outcomes. When I was about four, my older brother who was in the second grade and I were in our garage which was a whitewashed framed structure that stood at the end of the driveway. We were in the back of the cluttered building and he pointed to an old weathered chest covered in dust and told me never to go near it or open it up because our father had said not to. I asked him what it was and he said it belonged to our mother and it had her things in it. She had died when I was fifteen months old and I had no definite memory of her but the chest reminded me of the coffin I had seen in the old black and white Dracula movies of the 1930’s and needless to say I feared she might be in there so I never went near it. My mother was buried 180 miles from where we were living but as I alluded to in an earlier blog, she was more present with us around that chest than in that coffin 180 miles away. More and more of the latter generations since our parents seem to go for cremation and it leaves me somewhat concerned as to how best arrange for that final aspect for my wife and me. I can’t say the video was any help. It reminded me of being in the garage with my brother back in 1955.
The things which you describe, to cremation and from funeral to “celebration of life” to a memorial where the deceased (dead person) is subtly regarded as a guest who, for unstated reasons, isn’t present – all lead me to see a sort of ultimate escape from reality.
When I was in my late teens I went to my grandmother’s funeral and viewed her in an open casket service. Many years later I wished a farewell to my father on his deathbed just after he’d died.
At my mother’s memorial I felt ripped off. The final fairwell was treated like yet another piece of reality which my family imposed supression of on me.
I was promised that I would be told when and her ashes were to be spread but, got an e mail about it after the fact.
I have been criticised for the, mainly, emotional injuries that I have inflicted on others in seeking escape from reality, and willingly admit that these were profuse but, how much does society; in their denial about life’s conclusion; injure the many who wish to acknowledge that conclusion?
Coffin makers and undertakers are largely squeezed out and – will it be necessary to eventually do away with crematoriums so as to deny anything other than the limited worldly aspects which we know? As people reject the possibility of the intangeable to deny unpleasantries of where will it lead?
Christ warned us of false prophets and Messiahs who were purveyors of a false doctrine in Matthew 7:15&16 24:24 in Mark 13:21-23 and, in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, we are alerted that satan already had these in place very shortly after the warning.
Hide from truth (John 8:31-34) and where’s the hope for any sort of freedom?
The video was very haunting, maybe because of the background music. My wife and I have talked about how we want to be buried. I am 69 (will be 70 in 4 months) and she is 67. We have been married for almost 48 years now. I remembered her parents celebrating their 50th. anniversary. We both want to be buried in a wooden box. Why waste the money on an expensive casket. We also have gotten a grave site at a Veterans Cemetery. We want to be buried, one on top of the other. It is funny, we get to this age and we think about burial preparation often. Time sure went by fast. It seems like yesterday when I proposed to Jan. We got married, had 4 wonderful kids and now we enjoy our 16 grandkids. Life is wonderful. Thank you Msgr. Charles for your blog.
It has been two weeks to the day that we laid to rest my father in a casket made by the Trappists in Iowa. I take great solace in this for many reasons. Two that come to mind immediately are prayers that were offered in his name as his casket was being built as I believe you really can never have too many folks praying for you. Secondly my dad had a special place in his heart for the men whom are consecrated to God who live in community in monasteries. It seemed only fitting that these men he loved help send him on the rest of his journey. Beautifully done and thank you for sharing
One of the saddest results of our modern age is the isolation we now experience in the real facts of life. Our modern, urban worlds are very sanitized and immediate. Those who have lived on farms and ranches, and/or those who have lived in homes with multiple generations and extended families are very blessed. They know that life is full of cycles — birth, death, the day to day — and all intertwined. We no longer live in communities watching and learning from others who teach us daily about new life, and life near its end. Death is very much a natural end — sometimes abrupt, unexpected, and painful — but part of the cycle. I am only in my mid-forties, and raised in that suburban sterility, but I have had the great privilege of sitting at a deathbed, keeping vigil with a loved one. It profoundly changed my outlook on death — and the sometimes intrusive, if well-meaning attempts of the medical community to intervene, and save a life at all costs. Sometimes we need to let death come, as it will, rather than stave it off until there is nothing left to fight for. Caring for the dead and dying is a great Work of Mercy. God bless Marian caskets for showing that mercy in this isolated, fearful world.
Some years back, Ray Bradbury (who else) penned a short story about a future time wherein death has been so sanitized small children are regularly taken on excursions to the public crematoria. The protagonist, a man who doesn’t want to be dead, but is, tries to blow up the crematoria to shock people back into a realization that if death is sterilized, so has been their (our) living.
Some years ago I came across some doggerel which seems appropriate here.
“Life can be a burden,
Death can be a friend,
But everything is made right,
With Jesus in the end.”
Mick and Pat approached their late friend’s cottage to the sounds of music and merrymaking emitting from the open door and windows of Sean’s home their friend for it was Sean’s wake that they were going to pay their respects to Sean and his wife. The two friends entered the crowded room and was greeted by Cathleen, Sean’s wife and expected to see Sean laid out in the center of the room on at a table as was the custom.Cathleen explained that the large table was upstairs and that was where they had put him, so the two friends climbed the stairs with Cathleen and prayed for his soul, it would be grand if we had three chairs to sit and spend a bit of time with him Mick suggested to Cathleen, so she went to the head of the stairs and shouted down to the noisy crowded room downstairs, Send up three chairs for Sean and someone at the bottom of the stairs shouted out “send up three cheers for Sean”‘ and everyone shouted Hip,Hip Hurra, Hip, Hip, Hurra.Hip,Hip,Hurrra.
I had to smile. My husband died a year and half ago. Age 90. I purchased one of the Trappists caskets. No problems . It arrived on time and it was BEAUTIFUL. Everyone admired it & I have already ordered one for myself. I’m thinking of birthday/Christmas gifts for the 5 children. What better gift at a time of sorrow, than I was thinking of you.
Shortly after Mom’s death in 2004, I was making a specific dish that called for raisins.
I placed my left arm on the freezer door of the side-by-side ‘spare’ refrigerator, and opened the fridge door. Glancing up and down, I spoke out loud, “Raisins. Raisins. Come on, I know you’re in here someplace! Come out, come out wherever you are!!!”
Then it dawned on me, Mom always put them in her meatballs, and she was probably the last one to use them. So I blurted out, “Okay, Mom! What’d you do with the raisins?”
A half-full bottle of Dr. Pepper toppled off the middle shelf, hitting me in the knee, and the bag of raisins fell on top of it.
I told her, “Thank you! But you know, you didn’t have to throw them at me!”
Needless to say, I haven’t cried for her yet.
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