April 5, 2020, the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams announced, “This is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives…. This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized. It’s going to be happening all over the country.”
What a jaw-dropping statement, and it’s not an exaggeration. On April 10, 2020, this silent report appeared in several newspapers:
Last night on a Skype call with friends a few blocks down the street Bob said he had a pandemic dream, “It was a nightmare.” Then thinking of Trump, he added, “a nightmare within a nightmare.” A third person piped up, “and the climate catastrophe, don’t forget that: a nightmare within a nightmare within a nightmare.” All said on a safe, pleasant Canadian street where the crocuses are starting to bloom and trees are budding. Spring is coming. and in New York City they are stashing corpses in refrigerated trucks, counting corpses, crunching numbers.
Before the pandemic arrived, I had begun building a coffin with Ted, a friend, not because I’m dying but because, as my daughter put it, Dad’s not afraid of dying. Truthfully, Dad is a bit afraid, but he displays his fear by defying death. Dad’s self-innoculating, staving off death by courting it. Building a coffin is like getting a flu shot; a bit of dead virus will keep away the real virus. A death rehearsal could stave off the full enactment.
I prefer a toe-pincher. As kid I saw these six-sided coffins (caskets have four sides) interred six-feet deep in movie versions of Boot Hill Cemetery. My coffin needs to be deep enough so I can be buried wearing my shit-kickers (boots, for the uninitiated). No sneakers for the dead. You can’t sneak up on God, and the Devil will catch you by the toe.
I’m hoping my coffin will be pulled in a tiny procession by a bike hearse down the Iron Horse Trail.
I would deeply appreciate having Lou Reed to sing me into the grave, but he expired in 2013 of liver disease. So the virtual Lou will have to do:
I own lots of books. I’m hoping to build a coffin that can be used as a bookcase–with an ash container on the top shelf–until I cross the Great Divide.
Dying is inevitable, but that doesn’t stop us from practising death. A few South Koreans get very serious about death-practice:
Practising death happens not only Korea but also in the UK, US, and New Zealand. In the Netflix series, Casketeers, a Maori couple in New Zealand en-casket dead folks. This Netflix series is full of weeping and wailing, humor, tenderness, ritual awkwardness, and rituals brilliantly, compassionately conducted.
Coffin clubs started before the pandemic. In these clubs folks can build, joke, laugh, dance, and prepare for the inevitable.
Until a couple of weeks ago Ted and I were visiting cemeteries and peeking into crematoria. One question we asked the crematorium manager: “Will you folks burn wood (the usual is cardboard or a cloth shroud)”? Yes, she said, you can use pine, willow or bamboo for your casket–no nails, all biodegradable.
If you must go, go green.
In the past week I’ve had engaging conversations with my neighbors across the backyard fence, overcoming the social distance that has lasted for years. Bodily distance is crucial; social distance, not so much. Socially we are together, although bodily we’re six feet apart (same as the traditional grave depth).
Ted and I are now building alone. He’s in his big shop, up the road in Elmira. I’m in my little basement shop in Waterloo. He can build a big coffin with marvellous sliding dovetails and wooden pegs to hold the corners together. I’ll make a verschlugener (Yiddish, look it up) pet-sized coffin with screws and glue, using wood scraps.
A month ago I was watching “Vikings,” a blood-and-guts Netflix show shot-through with Viking and Christian rituals, each as bloody as the other. So I’m imagining a Viking coffin.
Two problems with a floating basket coffin: I don’t have the basket-weaving skills, and I’m a New Mexico desert rat. Water scares me, so a boat-coffin scares me double-time. A Viking coffin buried in the ground with rocks surrounded by prairie grass would serve a dirt-dauber better.
Cailleah and I are now exchanging videos in the spirit of “Making It Up as We Go.” She’s in Toronto. I’m in Waterloo. I sent her this basement video:
Cailleah has now made a film in response. It’s shorter and much more creative than mine. It uses the coffin creak in the soundtrack.
While you bide time during the pandemic, here are a few of my favorite films to watch while contemplating life and death: