Meet Dennis White and his family: A moving short documentary on the life and pending death of Dennis White and his pursuit of an eco-friendly burial option through the help of artist Jae Lee, a mushroom, and a company called Coeio.
I met Chuck Lakin of Last Things in March of 2014. The first thing I noticed about him is that he has what my son and I call “Arnie Eyebrows.” Arnie was a dear friend of mine who died in 2012. He had the most amazing, long white eyebrows that draped downward, framing his face. Something about those eyebrows spoke of Arnie’s gentle nature and general approachability. The same was true of Chuck Lakin. I pretty much liked him right away.
The more we spoke of his passion for coffin building, wood-working in general, and his interest in creating ways to engage in conversations about the ultimate end each of us must face, the more I felt him a kindred spirit. It isn’t often I meet like-minded others who are able to comfortably discuss such taboo subjects. It’s more common that I experience what I’ve come to call a lead duck—that awkward, heavy silence immediately following my reply to the question,
“So, what do you do?”
“I talk with people about dying.”
It can be a real conversation killer, but not so for Chuck on our meeting one another. It wasn’t long before I felt compelled to take his workshop to build my own coffin. I was curious about the experience and wondered what it would feel like, knowing the box I shaped with my own hands would one day bear the weight of my dead body. Although I didn’t need it right away, I considered that, in reality, it wouldn’t be that awfully long before I did need it.
After all, I’m approaching sixty years of age. It’s kind of a simple math problem, really—approaching sixty means I’ve lived more of my life in the past than I will live in the future. Thinking of my life in this fashion helps me stay close to what’s important. Imagine my surprise, then, at feeling growing anxiety as the September workshop date approached. All manner of thoughts ran through my mind.
“You’re going to build a WHAT?!?”
The first person I told about my idea to build a coffin literally jumped a step backward from me. While I found that quite funny, I have to admit it triggered a bit of my own trepidation.
“Why am I wanting to do this?” “Why now?”
“Does this really make any sense at all?”
“And isn’t this just kind of creepy?”
I reminded myself several times that I didn’t have to use it immediately and that I should just relax and enjoy the process. Still, it was unsettling to have the heebie-jeebies. I consider myself pretty comfortable with death and dying. I had to wonder, though, just how comfortable could I be if I was suddenly experiencing all of this angst? Perhaps I had just been fooling myself.
I started to relax on arriving at Chuck’s workshop. Maybe it was the “Arnie Eyebrows” effect. Perhaps it was the smell of freshly cut wood. I stood still for a moment and breathed deeply.
“Yes,” I thought, “I can do this.”
I fell into an easier state as I gradually made my peace with the wood, the tools, and the pattern unfolding before me.
“Measure twice. Cut once.”
I very nearly heard my father’s voice from beyond the grave, instructing me as the day progressed. He had died in 2001 from lung cancer.
Plank changed to form under saw and router. I ran my hands over the wood, enjoying the fresh smell of pine. I again found myself quite surprised by rising thoughts and emotions.
“This is going to be beautiful,” I mused.
I wanted to take care with it. I wanted the corners to meet just so, and for the coffin to be square and true. I silently hoped others would view it that way and wondered if they would be able to see what I was beginning to see—a simple, elegant, capable vessel.
Chuck’s shop is laid out well and he’s created jigs and guides to make the process nearly seamless. Under his tutelage and watchful eye(brows), I had a coffin in about six hours. I posted a photo of my handiwork on Facebook when I arrived home and smiled at this response from a friend in Kentucky:
“That’s a pretty strange looking canoe.”
I thought again of my friend, Arnie, a Penobscot elder. He had wanted to be buried in the traditions of his people: with a birch bark wrap encasing his body. I liked seeing him bundled that way at his funeral and felt happy for him as he was simply laid into the ground and covered with cedar and tobacco offerings. It was a fitting send off, the birch bark reminiscent of canoes his ancestors had built.
I ran my hands over the wood one more time.
I had not expected to make such an easy friend of a plain pine box. I actually liked it. And by the end of the day, I could see that it was meant for me.