The phone rings. “Hello, St. Timothy’s.” On the other end is the local lumber yard. “We have a family here asking us to donate some wood for a casket. I told them I know someone who may already have one ready. Would you be able to help?” It’s a call we have received more than once this year already. If not from the lumber yard, then a neighbor or county agency. Several years ago, we began building simple wooden caskets. We try to keep one or two on hand. Usually, they are simply a rectangular, unfinished pine box with a family quilt used to line the inside. More than once, I have picked up the deceased from the funeral home and driven them to the cemetery in the back of my pick-up truck. Once there, family and friends will carry the loved one up a hill to lay it besides the hand dug grave in the family cemetery. On a few occasions, I have had the privilege to say the final words as the body is lowered into the ground, but most often it’s a family relative who “preaches the funeral.” And then, while almost everyone remains, the grave is closed as shovel by shovel the soil echoes on the wood.
The first casket I made was decades ago, for a parishioner in another church. He was a retired electrical engineer with NASA. College educated, financially secure, the pine box was not about saving money. When I came back to St. Timothy’s after serving that other congregation, the need for caskets seemed to change. Now this current community is located a few counties into Appalachia. One of the poorest Appalachian counties can be found less than two miles away. Three years ago, the estimate was that 45% of the households within a three-mile radius of the church had an income under $25,000 a year (17% under $10,000), up from previous times. It seemed the need for caskets was economic since an inexpensive funeral could easily cost half a year’s income for some of our families. A recent request though forced me to reflect on the issue. I had heard of the death within hours. I was warned that the family might need a little help. When the phone call came, I was asked if we could “help out with a box”. As we talked, I asked if there was a family quilt that could be used as a lining. “Oh, no. We have a casket. We would like a box to go over the casket.” They were asking for a vault. This was not the first time I have had such a request. The family was not wealthy by any means, but there was enough insurance for a metal casket.
The first time after I was ordained that I visited a funeral home with a family was in the late 1980’s. Virginia had planned her own funeral, purchased her grave-site and instructions given. She wanted the least expensive casket she could have. As we entered the showroom, this information was given to the director. We first were shown the premier casket, and then the fiberboard box. By the time the show was over, a steel waterproof casket with a “lifetime guarantee” was the choice. Far more pricey than Ginny would have ever wanted. Now the cemetery required either a steel casket or a vault so that as time passed, the ground would not settle and leave a depression. By the time we left the funeral home, an additional $900 concrete vault was purchased because, “you certainly don’t want the casket to be covered with dirt do you?” Now I will say that over the past forty years, I have worked with many funeral directors who have been far more honorable than my first experience.
When I was asked if we could supply a wooden vault for the steel casket this week I reflected on why would anyone want a wooden vault as it would do nothing to protect the casket for more than a year at most. Upon calling the funeral home to check on the size needed, I was given the phone number of a man who, as the receptionist said, “he makes a number of them for us from time to time.” Again, why would anyone want a wooden vault? When people have asked us to provide caskets, I have frequently been told, “they wanted to be buried in a plain wooden box like daddy was”. They wanted no frills, nothing fancy, just to be returned to the earth from which they came. We no longer have parlors in our homes. We may have a living room, but unless the home is close to a hundred years old, we do not have parlors. We do not need them because we now have Funeral Parlors, although today this archaic name has been replaced with “Funeral Home” or even “Legacy Center”. The wake in the home parlor has been replaced by the visitation at the funeral home. We no longer sit with the body at night staying awake until the dawn to bury our loved ones. Death has become something to fear, something to sterilize rather than be understood as a stage of life. I think the request for the “box to cover the casket” is a way to respect the simplicity of the old ways while having to live in the present. I’ve gone on long enough. Besides, I need to go down and start making another one for me. I keep having to giving them away for others to enter eternity with the Lord.
The Appalachian Regional Commission has published it’s 2017 listing of Economically Distressed Counties for the 2017 fiscal year and it doesn’t look much better for much of the region. A few counties have moved from distressed (counties that have at least twice the national poverty rate and have a per capita market income 67% of the national average or a three-year average unemployment rate that is twice the national average) to At-Risk while others have moved in a downward direction. All in all, the picture remains unchanged, with Eastern Kentucky almost entirely red. In total, eighty-four counties have received the distressed designation, with Maryland being the only state of the thirteen without such a county. In Kentucky alone, thirty-seven are distressed, but there are another twelve that are designates “At-Risk”. Throughout the Appalachian region another eighty-six have also been determined to be At-Risk. In Harlan County, whose beauty is currently plagued by the largest forest fire in the state, the population dropped from 75,275 in 1940 to 28,499 in 2013, the last year records are available. With no jobs, people are forced to move from their family homesteads in search of employment away from family who must stay, often the elderly or ill. While there are faint glimmers of hope, the promise of fast and reliable internet service which seems unlikely for the rugged and sparsely populated rural areas of the county, and a small factory opening to produce an alternative energy source from wood pellets is predicting to produce 30-35 new jobs and another possible sixty indirect jobs.
Estill County, where St. Timothy’s is located has fared better since it has not been effected by the decline in the coal industry like the more eastern counties of the state, dropping only from 17,978 in 1940 to 14, 488 in 2013. It has, however lost two of its major revenue sources. The railroad, still very active in the mid-nineteen eighties hauling coal and timber from further east in the state, lost it’d repair facility to Corbin in Southern Kentucky (now also closing) in the late eighties. The predominant cash crop of tobacco, whose fields could be found on nearly every piece of flat land, including St. Timothy’s, was once prevalent, now can hardly be found in the county. There is still timber for a few and school, healthcare and governmental jobs in the county, most find that to work, they must drive an hour or more to reach Richmond, Lexington, or Berea. Of those few who are not retired and regularly attend church services at St. Timothy’s, all but one must make this daily drive to work.
It might sound hopeless, but no. People are working despite the drives. More and more young people are getting a high school diploma and more are going off to college. While many will leave for good paying jobs, some are committed to bring their talents back home. High speed Internet is not available throughout much of the county. Homes on and off the mountain are being repaired and built and efforts are being made to draw tourism and related jobs into the county. Its slow work. Often it feels like four steps forward and three back, but our work goes on. I wish Jesus had not said that we would always have the poor with us, but we will. As they say, “some people are just too sorry” (to work), but while those are the ones that often stand out and get noticed, it is the many others who care and seek a better life for their children and themselves. These are the ones who seek, knock and ask and who will find the open door.
It’s hard to believe that Christmas is just a little over a month away. From that first year where we all gathered around a big pot of burgoo hanging from a tripod of stout branches trying to keep warm in the cold wind, to today when we have two buildings with heat, Christmas on the mountain has certainly changed. While the number of children is down, so seems the economy. We already have volunteers to decorate, which will begin as soon as our after Thanksgiving day camp and meal is over. We are making lists of the children we expect to be with us on December 22nd when we will distribute presents and provide food baskets to the community. Despite the many gifts that were shipped to us, by the time we purchased enough for all the children and groceries to fill the Christmas food baskets, we still spent just over $3,200, the bulk of which was for food. While the economy is improving in parts of the country, we unfortunately see little of it here. We know you have already begun receiving year-end asks and the last think you want to see is another, but I hope you will consider St. Timothy’s ministry here in this small portion of Appalachia where every little bit makes such a difference.
June 11-17, Toledo Area Episcopal Churches, Ohio
June 19-23, Christ Church Cathedral, Lexington, KY
July 16-22, Pleasant Run Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, OH
July 23-29, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Glenwood, MD
July 30-August 5, Episcopal Diocese of Maryland
August 6-12, Hudson Valley Episcopal Churches, NY
As I look out the window this morning, it looks cold and damp. The doe and her fawn, rather than leisurely nibbling on the uncut grass have rushed past into the woods, spooked by something. I really need to go and sand drywall and apply a second coat to the addition we worked on this summer, but the motivation is just not there and the pups are no help. So as I wait for inspiration, I thought I would take a few moments to look back over what we have been involved in this year. In April, members of the Diocese of Ohio joined us for a week to not only get our looms up and running, but to begin work on a “Living History Project”.They met with local residents along with some county officials and recorded oral histories. Before the end of the year they plan to have a video and an accompanying booklet completed to present at their Diocesan Convention. It was wonderful to hear about growing up on the mountain in times when one would walk quite a distance to a one room school house,
about family, moving away and the longing to return home to family. We hope to make some of the work available on the website early next year if not before.
June brought the beginning of our more traditional mission trip season with the return of our folks from the Toledo, Ohio area Episcopal Churches. Monday began off the mountain as the group finished the underpinning for Nellie’s new Tinny House. The remainder of the week was spent working at St. Timothy’s helping to paint and repair,
build a casket as well as pull up a water damaged floor replace it. Unfortunately our next group had to cancel so it was off to July with the arrival of the return of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church from Maple Glenn, PA. With an almost total young group, they took on the task of tearing off half of a roof,
replacing and painting new fascia, soffit, and gutters
along with replacing the front porch railing. The following week brought the return of Pleasant Run Presbyterian Church from Cincinnati. Monday morning found them finishing up the downspouts and odds and ends of the prior week’s project in town and then it was on to the model home to remove cabinets and flooring in the kitchen along with another bedroom. By Friday both bedrooms were complete, with carpeting and the kitchen floor ready for future vinyl flooring.
The middle of July brought a new type of trip to us, a Journey to Adulthood (J2A) pilgrimage from St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Annapolis, MD. Staying at St. Timothy’s, they spent several days traveling around central Kentucky learning about the history and culture of the area. Part of the experience of these teens was include service, so they continued work at St. Timothy’s with more painting of fences and building another casket. On Thursday, they traveled to Irvine to build a ramp for a wheelchair bound woman to give her ease of movement to and from her house.
The month ended with a joint visit from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Clinton, NC and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, N.C. As I write this, significant parts of the Clinton area are under water with flooding resulting from hurricane Matthew. Each day part of the crew held day camps for our youth. With wonderfully planned activities each day, all we can say is that the kids had a ball. Friday ended with “water day.” I fear, without knowing it, the mud slide may have been preparation for what will be left after the rivers in North Carolina go down. And yes, Manford has forgiven you for ruining his grass with the mud slide.
But the day camp was only part of their work. During the week, they removed and replaced a front porch.
August began with the return of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church from Glenwood, MD. The week found them completing the railing for Ella’s porch, adding steps to the side porch and then returning to Irvine to tear off and replace the second half of the roof begun earlier in the summer.
Unfortunately school had begun this week so there was not as much interaction with local youth, but as they have done in prior years, the assembled seventy backpacks filled with school supplies for children and teens from the mountain. By the following week, all had been distributed.
Our last regular mission visit was from the Episcopal Churches of the Hudson Valley, NY., who found themselves adding a new roof over a trailer,
wiring and insulating the addition. They also were able to repair a portion of a water rotted porch
and replaced flooring in a living room. While not something we have done before, our group became movers as we loaded the truck and car transporting trailer with donated items for St. Timothy’s. Horizontal and standing cabinets, shelves, what seemed tons of weaving thread and even a piano were loaded and unloaded as we moved our newly
donated items into our buildings. August ended with a short return visit by a few of our April group. Working with our local ladies, they spent a day cutting, ironing, and sewing a flag quilt to be given to the Kentucky Chapter of Quilts of Valor, who will present it to a veteran.
But the year is not over. We still have planned another visit from Ohio to work on weaving, our Halloween Party, Thanksgiving “Fall Gathering” and dinner, not to mention the Christmas party and Christmas food baskets. With six weeks booked already for next year, I do not think we will be slowing down anytime soon.
For an application for home repair please click the link below.
St. Timothy’s will be visited this spring by members of Toledo Episcopal Churches with the intent of producing a living history video of St. Timothy’s and the surrounding community. Led by the Rev. Jeff Bunke, the team will record interviews with local residents as we continue to build an ongoing relationship with the Dioceses of Ohio and Lexington through St. Timothy’s. The visit is made possible as a result of a Global and Domestic Grant from the Diocese of Ohio. In addition to the living history project, the grant will also provide supplies for our quilting and weaving projects. The intent of these projects have three primary aims. The first is to provide local residents with a means to increase their household income by producing quilts and weavings that can be sold as crafts to visiting mission trips, their churches and elsewhere. A second aim is to help to carry on these traditions to subsequent generations. The final aim is to build community interaction. The visit is planned for the week of April 3-9, 2016. We will again also be joined by a youth Mission Trip from the Toledo area June 5-11, 2016.
The updated forms for 2017 can be found on the “Resources” page including a checklist for visiting groups and the Home Repair Application. Some forms will be found on the second resource page.