When asked to sum up the nature of existence in a few words, a Buddhist master once replied “Everything changes.” Of the few things that we can be absolutely certain of in this life, one is that—at least based upon all empirical evidence I’ve ever seen—we will all die one day. It is interesting to stop and take note of, on the one hand, what a prominent role death plays in our daily experience (consider eating, for example, or maybe action films), and on the other how little attention we give in advance to such a fundamental truth as it applies to us.
Along these lines, I’ve long had the idea that I would build a coffin someday, whether for myself, or for someone in my family or community. I’ve always thought of it a rite of passage of sorts for a woodworker, yet in all the years I’ve been woodworking, I have never prioritized it myself, nor have I ever personally known anyone who had built one.
As in so many other realms of our society today, mass production and global commerce have largely taken over a role that used to fall to local, individual craftspeople. This is unfortunate, as what is lost in the process is connection: to place, to the local resource base, to the local economy, and most importantly, to the other people that make up the communities where we live. As I’m always more than ready to fight against that tide, I recently decided to design and build my first coffin.
Beyond those concerns, though, a more practical part of my recent motivation was to be well prepared for the moment should I be called on to build one. Designing and building anything on the fly is challenging; for something of such a personal and emotionally charged nature, and that is often on a strict (and potentially abrupt) timetable, I wanted to ensure that to the extent possible I would be able to work in a mindful way, putting intention into each step of the process, rather than working with a chaotic or stressful mindset. In this regard, preparing and testing a design in advance would be critical. I also would need to have an accurate sense of the materials required, where I could reliably source them, and what they would cost.
Once I decided to get started, the first thing I needed were some design parameters. An overall guiding principle would be ecological: all the materials would be 100% non-toxic and biodegradable. Right off I knew that I wanted to work with Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), which would have been a traditional choice locally, and is lightweight, reasonably priced, and readily available.
I put in a call to a local mill and ordered a quantity of #2 common pine boards, at a thickness of one inch, and in widths varying from 6-8″. These dimensions would allow me to resurface the boards as necessary, while still leaving ample material for strength and stability. My goal was to end up with 7/8″ thick by 5 1/2″ wide (or wider) boards, with some narrow rip cuts left over to serve as cleats and braces. Waiting for the freshly cut lumber to come out of the drying kiln would give me time to come up with a plan.
The first step I took in developing a design was to look for some “standard” dimensions online. What I found was all over the map—most of the search results related to Halloween props, rather than functional coffins, or caskets. I always thought the two were synonymous, but discovered that a coffin is a six-sided box, while a casket is in the more common four-sided rectangular shape. Having weighed the options, I decided to build a six-sided version, which is also evidently known as an “old world” coffin, or more amusingly, a “toe-pincher,” due to its taper towards the feet. This style would require gluing up a number of solid panels, as opposed to a casket, which could more easily be built in a frame and panel style. Maybe it’s because I watched a lot of westerns (or Dracula films) when I was young, but I had always envisioned building a toe-pincher as my first coffin; working out the angles would provide more of an interesting challenge than would 90 degree corners.
While there are some standard dimensions for a casket in the industry (84″ long x 28″ wide x 23″ tall), those are exterior dimensions, and so were of little help in designing my more austere unlined pine coffin. So I rolled out some kraft paper on the floor, laid down on it, and enlisted my wife to draw my outline and take some measurements: length, width at various points (especially the shoulders), and the height of various parts of my body in a prone position. At 5’9″ and 160 lbs, with size 9 feet, I’m pretty much your “average” American male with respect to height (and maybe shoe size), but about 20 pounds lighter; in any event, this gave a starting point. From there, I started working up a design with Google Sketchup, which was extremely helpful in experimenting with various dimensions and figuring out the angles with different configurations of length and width:
As opposed to building a one size fits all coffin, I decided to focus on the average height range, and ended up with a 73″ interior length, along with a shoulder width of 26 1/4″, and an interior depth of 13″. Construction was pretty straightforward:
Next came the finish, which was a few coats of linseed oil and beeswax, on the exterior surfaces only, as I wanted the interior to retain the resinous pine scent, and the handles, for which I decided to use natural jute rope (3/4″), as it was economical and more than adequately strong.
All told, it was a successful project, although I would like to build a rectangular casket prototype as well, as it would be much easier to assemble, and would be more amenable to having its dimensions altered as needed, without having to refigure all the corner angles. As for this one, the only remaining step will be to invite a group of friends over to ceremoniously carry it—with me inside— around the yard to test its engineering and ergonomics. After all the work, it will be gratifying (if only for a few minutes) to experience the view from the other side, so to speak. In all seriousness, though, it will be a great honor, and a humbling one, when I am called upon to put these new found skills to use.