Handling Loss

When I was first called to this work, one of my first challenges was to design a casket. There were certain fixed requirements. It must contain a body, it must make it possible to carry that body with dignity, it must fit existing infrastructure such as vaults and hearses, that sort of thing. As a seat-of-the-pants designer, I can handle that.

In an early design I took the rope for the handles to the inside of the casket, but it felt wrong, or intrusive. I began to see the inside at a sacred space for the deceased and whatever family and friends choose to send along on the journey. With this realization, my job as a coffineer became more clear. My task is to enclose the sacred space, to define the space without intruding upon it.

I have a whiteboard in the shop where I work things out. Still thinking about the handles, I began to draw a force diagram. A big down arrow for the weight of the body, a smaller down arrow for the weight of the casket, six little up arrows for the lifting force to be applied to the handles by the pall bearers to overcome the forces represented by the down arrows. I kept drawing. What other forces come in to play here? A down arrow for grief, another for loss. What are the opposing forces? Family and friends, neighbors, community. Some up arrows there. I had a lot of arrows at this point. Back to the handles. Suddenly, the handles were very important. The handles were where all these forces, physical, emotional and spiritual, came together. The handles are how we, the living, physically interact with the sacred space and purpose, and symbolically with our loss and grief. If we didn't care, we wouldn't be carrying this casket.

I've since built many caskets with the handle design that came out of this experience. I've had a single negative comment about the rope handles. A funeral director commented that she found them to be 'uncomfortable' and 'rough' on hands. If she says she found it so, I won't say that wasn't her experience. But I will add that caskets are heavy and death is sad. As a mourner, I want to feel all these things. It reminds me that I am alive, in this moment, at this funeral, and I am feeling these things.

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