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.