Ashes to Ashes, but First a Nice Pine Box


PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. — NOT long ago, my wife and I had a good friend over for a glass of wine. We had drunk just enough to feel pleasantly liberated in thought. Or at least that’s how I felt. Probably that’s why it seemed a good moment to bring it up. So, I calmly announced to my wife: “I’m going to build my own coffin. I just thought you should know.”

It didn’t go over well. Her first reaction — silence — quickly turned to blind anger. Then came demands for explanation, then commands to desist. Finally she fell silent again, this time not in disbelief but in punishing disapproval.

I hadn’t anticipated so much resistance. The plan didn’t seem so extreme to me — no more extreme, anyway, than my circumstances. I have incurable Stage 4 prostate cancer, which I learned I had at age 54. I’ve been living with it for 11 years, and in that time I’ve tried every conventional treatment and many trial ones. All in all, I think I have done extraordinarily well: I’ve been able to travel, to photograph, to write. On most days, I walk over four miles. And although I did have to give up my surgical practice, the extra time has let me become much closer to my family and friends.

Robert G. Fresson

My family, of course, remembers not just the positives but those dark days of sickness after chemotherapy, the reactions to drugs requiring resuscitation, and the hospitalizations for complications. While I like my edited version better, theirs cannot be dismissed.

What we all agree on, though, is that my journey is coming to an end relatively soon. The remaining treatment options are mostly minor modifications of previous failures. My bones are riddled with metastatic disease, and I’m starting to need pain medications. As we used to say in the medical business, I’m starting to circle the drain.

Yes, but why build your own coffin? When I mention it to others, most are distinctly uncomfortable with what they interpret as my abandonment of the “fight against cancer,” which by their reasoning must be the explanation for my continued survival. I must be giving up. That my motivation is the exact opposite eludes them. In fact, it is a project that I wish I had started much earlier.

 The idea came to me at the funeral of an 18-year-old boy. While sitting in the church, I couldn’t help noticing the plushness of the young man’s open mahogany coffin, and knowing the family’s plan to cremate him afterward, I wondered whether there was a kind of contradiction here.

I began to think about this aspect of my own funeral. I, too, plan to be present — though unviewed — at my service, as well as cremated. But I find comfort in simplicity and familiarity and, I suppose, purity. A little investigation showed me that most people are cremated in a cardboard container of some sort. My ecological conscience argued for recycled cardboard, yet that implied that my ashes would spend eternity blended with the powdered remains of ice cream containers, first drafts and pizza boxes. I’m sure one could do worse, but why not opt for a more elemental final mix: me and wonderful old wood.

Making my own coffin was the answer. A plain pine box. My own plain pine box. Creating something of beauty and purpose would be both a celebration of life and an acceptance of my death.

I knew immediately whom to contact: Peter, a beautifully untethered soul and a talented artist who works in wood. Untethered or not, some persuasion was required. He feared he might be contributing to something my wife and family would find abhorrent. He said that he would gladly help if I could obtain their approval, which I eventually did.

Outwardly, Peter and I could not be more different. His earring, tattoos and free spirit are a counterpoint to my proper fussiness. Yet we had enough in common to begin our project with a shared purpose: to make something both practical and emotionally meaningful. We were both aware and at peace with the coffin’s fiery denouement; what we hadn’t anticipated was how building it would bring us together, and how that would affect the final product.

The pine boards, rescued from an old factory, were thick with dirt, oil and splinters. I was skeptical of resurrection, but when the boards were cut into strips, rotated and planed, each one revealed a new beauty, emerging from its own distinctive grain and knots and scents.

Peter’s and my growing closeness as friends mirrored the process of preparing the wood. We each spoke of what we wanted to accomplish with our remaining lives, and what we regretted in our pasts. The coffin slowly took on its recognizable shape, prompting me to speak of my fears of death and of leaving my family behind. In moments like this, we set aside the tools, and we would sit and talk quietly. Peter had fears also, different from mine, but no less worthy: Artistic creativity is a challenging basis on which to support a family.

Amid this, there were also wonderful moments of black humor: How much nose clearance is acceptable? How much will I weigh when I actually need this thing? Does it come with a lifetime guarantee? We even made T-shirts that read, “I’m dying to show you my latest project.” But even the most joyous laughter often merged with tearful embrace.

With time and almost without awareness, the quality of the coffin’s construction became a surrogate for our mutual respect. We selected each board with careful deliberation. We glued and assembled them meticulously, and adjacent boards were book-matched to present beautiful mirrored images of the wood’s grain. Finally everything was hand sanded and sealed with a natural finish.

We’d made a stunningly beautiful pine box, and a stunningly beautiful friendship. But we knew that neither could last, and that this was the very reason to celebrate them.

Something else has happened, too. The project has smoothed the rough edges of my thoughts. It’s pretty much impossible to feel anger at someone for driving too slowly in front of you in traffic when you’ve just come from sanding your own coffin. Coveting material objects, holding on to old grudges, failing to pause and see the grace in strangers — all equally foolish. While the coffin is indeed a reminder of what awaits us all, its true message is to live every moment to its greatest potential.

So the box now sits at the ready for its final task, when together we will be consigned to the flames. I find comfort in knowing where my body will lie, and just above it, embossed on the underside of the coffin’s lid, in front of my sightless eyes — my favorite line of poetry: “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

Jeffrey M. Piehler is a retired thoracic surgeon.