Homemade Casket: A Final Gift Giving Comfort amid Grief

by MSO

The coffin Dan and André Fischbach built for their father in Dan's basement in Columbia, Mo. André is the one on the left, Dan on the right.

There seem to be only two reactions when I tell someone my brothers custom-made the coffins my parents are buried in.

One is to be creeped out. Understandable, perhaps.

The other is to ask questions: Why? How? Was it hard? Expensive? How did your brothers feel about that?

I’ll try to answer all that. But now that the end is here, with Dad’s death Sept. 4, let’s begin at the beginning, back in 2000.

My mother, Yvette, was dying, slowly. We knew it and she knew it. The Parkinson’s disease and congestive heart failure were only going to get worse.

That fall, André Fischbach journeyed from eastern Pennsylvania to his hometown of Faith, S.D., to spend time with his parents and fix up their home. Like our dad Andrew, a cattle rancher, André likes being a handyman.

As the youngest of 10 kids, he was particularly close to his parents. He wasn’t handling the idea of Mother’s mortality well.

So he didn’t expect what he now calls “the ambush.”

After clearing away the lunch dishes, André sat with Mom for a chat. Already on oxygen, she wanted to talk funeral.

“I’ve been thinking about this, as we prepare for the inevitable,” she began. “Caskets are so expensive. I wonder how you’d feel about building mine.”

After scraping his chin up off his lap, André stammered that he wouldn’t know where to start with such a project.

That’s when Dad, seated nearby, whipped out a Rockler Woodworking catalog.

“They have these plans,” he said, laying it in André’s lap. “They’re only $15.”

André looked at the picture. It looked complicated. But he’d already made his parents a bedroom set, coffee tables and an elaborate china cabinet.

“I said, ‘I don’t know if I have the skill, the tools. I’ll go home, order the plans and figure out if I can do it.’”

But what was he thinking?

“On the surface it sounded just morbid. Imagine yourself building your mother’s casket. Sounds awful. Who would want to do that? And it scared me.”

He imagined his siblings pointing out flaws – not beyond the realm of possibility. And would it be up to what his mother deserved?

The plans broke the project down. He saw he could do it. And an excuse to buy a few new tools softened the overwhelming urge to beg off.

“For all my parents had done to give me a start in life with an education, a car, no debt – how could I turn around and say no? I just didn’t feel like I could.”

He put off starting for a full year, other than buying tools, the oak and a kit of metal parts. The raw materials cost about $500.

All through fall 2001 and winter 2002, André spent free evenings and weekends working in his basement, not only on the coffin but on the process of grieving, reflecting on his childhood, his relationship with his mother, her pain and suffering.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” he said. “I got choked up on more than one occasion. But it made me confront it. Before she asked, I wasn’t ready to deal with that. It was hard, but it was a blessing.”

Building the basic box was quick, though he made a mistake in gluing the bottom and had to hammer it apart to fix it. Making the lid, handles and trim pieces, sanding and hand-rubbing many coats of oil — that took time. Months.

He had a horrible nightmare: Coming down the steps of his childhood church, the bottom of the casket he’d had to repair fell out, along with his mother.

Soon after, he made his wife get in the casket while he and some neighbors picked it up and bounced it up and down. It was solid. He added extra screws anyway.

He finished in October 2002. When friends came to a Halloween party, he took them to the basement to visit the coffin.

“I had told the neighbors what I was doing, but they thought it was a joke. They didn’t believe I had a coffin down there. When they saw it, it was kind of collective shock. They didn’t realize a person could do that. Some thought it was pretty weird.”

He wrapped it in blankets and shipped it to northwestern South Dakota, where local woodworker Reed Henschel installed an interior lining kit of white satin. That cost another $250.

My parents stored it in a basement bedroom. Over the next year and half, more than one visiting grandchild got a little weirded out sleeping next to Grandma’s coffin. But Mom often told Henschel when she saw him around town that she loved her casket. She even considered having her picture taken in it — while still living.

When the time came for Mom’s funeral in March 2004, long after her doctors had expected, André was the first person to enter the viewing room.

“I was very concerned that it look good enough to be Mom’s final resting place. So it was a huge relief to see how good she looked in it. I could feel the tension drain from my body instantly. I didn’t know how good that was going to feel.”

Amid grief, André found great comfort that he had fulfilled his mother’s last request, to her satisfaction and his own. At the funeral dinner, he thanked his high school shop teacher for making it possible.

The day after, the funeral director dropped by with a $1,700 reimbursement. Mom had prepaid for a coffin, just in case. The undertaker showered André with compliments, saying he’d “seen some lulus” when it came to homemade cowboy coffins. But he’d be glad to put a coffin like that in his showroom anytime.

It wasn’t long before Dad asked, “Who’s going to build my coffin?”

André was emotionally exhausted. Dan, who had just built a dining room table at his home in Columbia, Mo., stepped up.

“The table didn’t involve the kind of detail work I knew would be involved,” he said. “So I was simultaneously honored and scared about my ability to complete the task.”

Welcome to André’s exclusive little club, Dan.

Dad wanted walnut, darker than Mother’s oak coffin. Like André, Dan took a year to buy the wood, hinges and metal trim. Once they arrived, he had the basic box built within a couple weeks.

Then, after a few random work spurts, the project sat for a year and a half untouched.

“I stalled out completely,” said Dan, a retired Navy pilot. “It wasn’t emotional avoidance. I just wanted everything to be perfect. I obsessed over details, like putting the prettiest board on the part of the coffin that would show the most. But really, it had more to do with my lack of confidence.”

In spring 2008, Dad fainted at church just before his 88th birthday. He had low blood pressure and dementia. André began to worry that the coffin was not ready.

“He called me and asked if I’d be insulted if he took a week’s vacation, came out and we finished it,” Dan said. “I said, ‘Thank you, let’s do it.’”

André had the advantage of experience. With each step, he knew what came next. For a week in mid-July 2008, he kept Dan focused.

“I did most of the routing,” Dan said. “He did most of the measuring, I did most of the cutting. The sanding and gluing we did together. What made me feel good was he didn’t take over the project. He helped me, but he gave me ownership.”

At the end of the week, all that was left was attaching metal trim, and many more hours of sanding and oiling. But the coffin was built. And after André left, Dan was motivated to finish.

“It was great brother time,” Dan said. “It was very task-oriented, but we did talk about Dad some.”

Dan said that, for him, there was less to process emotionally than with Mom. André said Dan didn’t seem to want to talk about what they were doing, so he intentionally kept quiet. His focus was on finishing.

“It was just a labor of love, something I wanted to do for Dad,” Dan said. “He was always there for me.”

On Sept. 8 Andrew’s seven sons were his pallbearers. The homemade box, with Andrew’s cattle brand burned inside the lid, again brought comfort amid grief.

Dan does take issue with one element of Rockler Woodworking’s coffin plans. It’s not a beginner project, as it was billed. Dan called it at least intermediate.

“Although it is a good beginner project in one way,” he said. “You bury all your mistakes.”

Whatever level of difficulty, André says now it was worth it.

“It truly was a gift, as much to me as it was to them. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Or to encourage anyone to do it. You don’t really understand until you see them in the box you made. That’s the reward.

“That, and coming to grips with their dying. A part of us is with them forever as they turn to dust. For me, that has greatly eased the grieving process.”

By: Bob Fischbach

Contact the writer: 402-444-1269, bob.fischbach@owh.com

Reprinted with permission from The Omaha World-Herald.


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