We stood, on that chilly fall evening, in the sacred place with the people we loved, the aroma of fragrant flowers mixing with the scent of burning pine. The beautiful, manly body of my eighteen year old nephew, Clayton, rested under the rounded top of a lovely casket. We wept and laughed and wept again as we remembered him; recalled his terrible string of jokes at our family reunion, his escapades in scouting, his artistic gifts just on the early spring side of brilliant blossoming when that piercing irretrievable moment came and his motorcycle laid him down on a concrete road. We burnt our names in the wood of his casket. Little love notes to hover over him.
I stood next to my mother.
"It's out of order, don't you think?"
She was referring to the fact that she was burying her grandchild rather than her grandchild burying her. Mom turned to my nephew Elliott, Clayton's cousin, who is a master builder.
"I want you to make me a plain pine box when I go. Nothin' fancy...just a plain old pine box. Promise?"
"You know I'm serious."
He smiled again. Then nodded.
So when the dreaded day finally arrived, when my mother closed her eyes, drew a breath, and leapt into heaven, the nudger of truth kept poking Elliott as we huddled in our sorrow and made plans for our matriarch's final bow. He whispered his commitment to fulfill his Gram's wishes, and we embraced and wept again.
So began the space in time when the earth turned round and round and round again, but the lights in the shop at Atmosphere Studios never went dim. Atmosphere is where Elliott and his wife Katie work. Elliott had begun as a carpenter and moved on to other things in the company. But he knows those tools well. And they know him. The generosity of the Atmosphere staff, especially the foreman and carpenters in that shop, will never be forgotten. They moved their tools and supplies and current projects to other work tables and allowed Elliott to design and oversee the building of his first, and he swears his last, casket. With the assistance of his father, (my brother John) and my son John, who is also a builder, they set to work. It began with the selection of the best wood they could find. Straight, true, well seasoned and beautifully grained pine of a certain thickness and width.
They planed and shaved and cut and trimmed. There are carpentry terms I don't know that would do better justice to their labors. My husband, and brothers, and sons and nephews and grandsons all pressed their hands against that wood in some form or another, helping the project to completion in the short allotted time. Meanwhile we who know less of such things ordered flowers and wrote tributes in word that fell short of her magnificence. We swept and cooked and cradled and fed. And late at night, when the rest of the city had watched the news and fluffed their pillows and turned out the light, we drove down to Atmosphere Studios and took nourishment to the boys. There in the silent summer night, when the only other sound was the distant moan of a train whistle, we listened to the anguished squeal of a sharp steel blade pushing her way through good soft pine. It echoed against the walls of the building across the parking lot. We inhaled the smell of earthy fresh sawdust, swept into pile after pile under the table. They worked in a sort of sacred silence, no construction worker laughter or crass joking. Just good, steady labor with intense focus, and a nice selection of well written music in the background.
One morning, when my sisters and I were there, the foreman opened his door, which was up a small set of stairs just above the main workspace. He stood with a cup of coffee in his hands, and looked down at us.
"This is a real nice thing you are doing for your mom." He paused for a minute to clear his throat. "I've never seen anything like it before. Real nice."
There are no nails in my mother's casket. No screws either, except for the simple hinges that hold the top that lifts. The edges are tongue and grooved. And the wood is bound together with biscuits, little oval shaped pieces of flat wood that fit into holes sawed into the edge of the wooden planks. The little biscuits, about two inches long, are covered with glue and inserted into the holes created in two pieces of wood and the result, when dried, is screwless, almost seamless bonded wood. The names of every one of Gram's kids, grand kids, great-grand kids, and sons and daughters in law, are written on the biscuits that hold our mother's casket together. You can do things like that when you build your own casket.
Day after day they worked, coming home in the wee hours of the morning weary with the labor and the sorrow. I cannot imagine the burden Elliott felt, having never before designed nor constructed such an intimate and yet public thing. His love for his Gram is so deep, and his desire to give her exactly what she wanted in the most perfect form possible, had to have weighed heavily on him. I see his face in my memory, his brows pursed and beautiful eyes focused, his hands on his hips and his head bent to the ground just slightly as he thought through the process. Measure twice - Cut once, his Gram always said.
Finally the construction was complete. They sanded and sanded, blowing away the powdery residue, their faces down close to the wood, as if they were blowing her kisses. Then they brushed soft satin finish to seal the wood. While they did this, we daughters met at an old well worn building in Salt Lake City and chose a simple cotton fabric for the liner on our mother's casket. On the first floor of that place were a number of imported coffins, all made of lovely woods from exotic places. The owners were not all that impressed that we would want a pine box for our mom when we could have one of these elaborate dark wooden ones, all polished and fancy. It doesn't matter that they did not understand.
There is something therapeutic in moving one's body with real intent, sweating away the sorrow in a time of loss. There is something about the creative process that keeps the mind alive and active when its tendency is to micro focus on the deep loss and freeze frame in that empty place. Something about falling bone-tired into bed and letting sleep take over.
Blessed with a mortician who is also a neighbor and friend, we were able to offer our mother a deeply personal and highly personalized vehicle for her departure. I can see her shaking her heavenly head and saying, in the end, that all that really mattered is that her spirit got home safely. And yet I can also see her stopping whatever it is she is doing up there, and biting her lower lip as her angel heart races, calling out to those around her: "Well will you look at that! Look what my kids did, just for me. Isn't it just so lovely! Just so lovely!"
We cleared the living room at our mother's house, which is also our sister Libby's house. Cleared out the couches and bronze statues, and we placed our mother's blessed body in her pine casket over against the east wall. We flung open the tall front door and her friends and family lined all the way down the front stairway out to the street. The light of a late August sun streamed through the windows, falling on masses of flowers, releasing with that bit of warmth an aroma of spring. So much love passed through that door it was almost beyond our ability to contain. It still spills out each time we open the windows.
That night, when the outer circles of love had embraced and departed, we of the inner circle gathered around the casket and Norris Nalder, our friend and mortician, taught our children's children what the word casket means.
"The word coffin means a box for burial that is shaped like the body. It uses less wood, and it kind of scares some people. But the word casket means a treasure box, often holding precious jewels. This casket is unique. There is not one other like it in the whole world, because it was built especially for Afton Hansen, by the people who love her. She is the treasure for which this box was made. And she is the finest kind of treasure God ever created."
In the end, Elliott led the pall bearers when that beautiful casket was given to the earth. Elliott, his sister Emily, and their cousins.
There are twelve of them...Gram's grandchildren. Like her own set of disciples. They all lifted her earthly weight and allowed it to go where Gram always wanted to go...how she always wanted to go: The hands of her posterity sending her off. All her grandchildren but two: Joseph, who is on a mission in the Czech Republic. And Clayton, who is with Gram.