Essay : Will there be dancing?
My mother died on Valentine's Day, last year. She'd lived, sort of, with Alzheimer's for several years. Her eventual death, for me, was a long time coming. She wasn't really my mother when she died. She had become an irretrievable, scared, scattered being, unattached to her present life or to those around her, physically wasted, and unable to have one more good day.
Just a couple of days before her last, one of my sisters called to tell me that my mother's end was near, and would I please build her a nice casket? I said sure, I'll build her a good one. How much time did I have? Perhaps a couple of weeks, she said, but no more.
My shop here on the Vineyard is not big, and at the time of this call I had two boats in there under construction. Space was at a premium. Even so, I had just enough room to put together the coffin, and got right to work on it. It was my first one, and I was working without plans or a clear idea of what it should look like when it was finished. I scoffed at the suggestion someone made to call the mortuary to check on dimensions, and I was just a little unsure about the actual legality of it all. I was also aware of some keen, underlying emotional sensation involving the need for haste, and impending loss. I didn't want to rush the job. I wanted the finished product to be decent, I also expected to be able to finish the coffin building in time to see her off, but she died first.
I was proud of the way the thing turned out. With several coats of shellac, the wood fairly glowed, and the domed lid set it off from ordinary. The joinerwork was fine. There remained only the handles to install, admittedly a detail I hadn't contemplated until a visitor to my shop made the observation that most boxes destined for this type of use had a means of grasping for transport. With my ferry reservations in place for the next morning, and it being late in the day, I settled on full length grab-rail type handles, made of clear pine, fastened to the outside of the coffin with large stainless steel screws driven from the inside out; twelve of them to a side, leaving no doubt about failure. Early the next morning we loaded it into the truck, and I delivered it to the funeral home. It was a four- or five-hour road trip, and the coffin attracted a lot of attention on the way.
My mother lived in Vermont, and when she died the ground was frozen. The frost had gone down several feet, and the cemetery people suggested we postpone the burial until the spring. Her remains were dutifully loaded into my handiwork and stored in a vault until the middle of May, when the digging would be easy, and there could be a large attendance. It seemed like a long time to me. On the appointed day the sun was out, and there we were, a small crowd of family and well-wishers, undertakers, and church people, a minister and a widower all gathered to see her off for good.
The hearse rolled up the hill and parked some distance from the burial site. I had taken the liberty of inspecting the hole beforehand, and took note of the concrete liner, or crypt that lay at the bottom. It looked sort of small to me. Doubt crept around the darker recesses of my mind, soon to be confirmed by the undertaker's look when he picked my face out of the group. He took my elbow and led me around to the far side of the hearse. It looks like a tight fit to me, he said. Yeah, said I. I guess I should have called you about this sooner, he said. Yeah, said I. What do you want to do, he asked. Bury my mom, I said, today.
We discussed the matter some more and ended up with a plan. I jogged to my truck where, behind the seat, was my tool apron. I grabbed the tape measure. Back at the hearse, we opened the doors and rolled out the coffin far enough to get a real good measurement. Then we walked, as if nothing was untoward, back to the hole in the ground where the Astro-turf covered the dirt, where the two bars and the two straps were waiting for the final interment. I jumped down into the grave and carefully measured the inside clearance of the concrete crypt. It was not uniform, being just a rough cement casting, but it was too small for the coffin. How much too small, asked the undertaker. About an inch, most places, I replied, looking up at him, his face just a dark shape with the bright sunlight above him. A little more, maybe, in places.
He took the tape measure from me when I climbed out, and went in himself to check my findings, I suppose. He arrived at the same conclusion. Back outside the hole, we saw that some of the folks were quietly watching us, and one of my sisters walked over and said, what's up?
The minister said it was time to pray, and when that part was done, we all walked to the hearse and grabbed a spot on those long pine handles and carried my mom in her box over to the hole in the ground surrounded by Astro-turf and laid it all on top of those two bars.
There were people that wanted to talk about her, and we let them. There were a few poems, and one of her sisters played her recorder. Some others got up to talk but found they couldn't. Eventually it was time to lower her down. The undertaker looked uneasy, looking at me, looking at the coffin. I grabbed his elbow and said, I've got a block-plane in the truck. We could plane down those handles. If we get half an inch off each side, we can do this thing.
I jogged to the truck, came back with the plane. Working right over the open hole, on my knees, I started planing as never before. Long shavings of pine, smelling sweet in the hot sun, fell into the hole, drifted around the hilltop. After a while the undertaker took a turn at the planing, then my brother, then me again. We planed down those handles until all twenty-four of those steel screws, driven from the inside, prevented us from taking any more off. We measured the width of the box again. Close, but still there was doubt. I squeezed by the coffin and down into the grave again, this time with the unforgettable view of my mother's coffin over my head, the dirt on all four sides with bits of stone, clay layers and sand, some iron-rust looking strata. The crypt lay at the bottom of the hole, not quite level. I remeasured the concrete, and then, overhead, remeasured the casket. I squirmed back out into the daylight fairly convinced that the box could just fit and also that I may be one of the very few that had ever seen what I saw from that particular angle. I think it'll go, I told the undertaker.
We commenced the lowering, which, in turn, triggered some more praying. Just before the box entered the crypt, we had to pull out the straps, because their very thickness would have prevented the casket from sliding in. It did slide in; about half way before stopping, mostly on one end. You're not going to like this, I told the undertaker as I jumped onto the top of the box. I felt it scrape down a little more. I tried a few experimental hops, and each one achieved a little more, but soon my hops were more like jumps, stomps, and I knew I needed some help. Get in here, I called to my brother. He looked awful, but in he climbed. We worked together, and, finally, the coffin hit bottom.
An hour later, after we'd filled in the hole, the undertaker and I were talking things over. I thanked him for all he'd done. He gave me a sidelong glance, and seemed to choose his words carefully: "Been at this for some time," he said, "seen maybe fifty, a hundred burials. Never seen this, before; brothers, dancing...yup...on the very lid of their own mother's...well, guess if you live long enough you might.... Anything else I can do, you let me know."
Rick Brown, a boatbuilder, lives in Oak Bluffs.