The Body and the Coffin

All this Cheerfulness Keeps Getting in the Way of Us All Being Properly, Deeply Sad

This one comes to us from Kurt Armstrong.

A few years ago I built a coffin for my father-in-law Walter. I made it with oak plywood, the oak a nice veneer, the plywood strong and stable so it wouldn’t warp or twist or cup. I built it, stained it, and varnished it, and I kept in the storage room in the basement of our house until “time of need,” a tidy little euphemism I learned from an undertaker.

Walter wanted a traditional diamond-shaped coffin, the kind you’d see in a Bela Lugosi Dracula movie: wide at the elbows, tapered slightly towards the feet and towards the head. Seventy four inches long, twenty four wide at the elbows, sixteen at the head and at the feet, sixteen deep from the inside of the lid to the floor of the coffin. Stained black, finished with a glossy varnish. And no handles: he wanted the pallbearers to carry him on their shoulders.

He was very, very kind, and I always thought of him as heroically strong. When he was 55, he dug a basement for a small cabin with a shovel, and then collected tons of fieldstone for the foundation and built the whole thing by himself, including a gorgeous stone fireplace. Around the same time he worked for a stonemason who had a side business renting out enormous tents, and Walter used an 18-lb sledgehammer nicknamed “The Persuader” to drive home the tent pegs. On a moose-hunting trip in northern Manitoba, Walter and his best friend paddled for days into headwinds, lost their supplies and slept in flattened tents. Walter ended up spending a night alone on an island, resting on a piece of cardboard and huddling close to a dying fire, and he said, with not a hint of sarcasm, that it was one of the best nights of his life. Every winter, after the first big snowfall, he’d strip down to his skivvies and head outside and roll in the soft snow until he was covered, and in the summer, he’d regularly go into the trees to pick stinging nettle for tea, again wearing nothing but his underwear. He said, “It reminds me that I am a body.”

He had had a grey mane, broad shoulders, thick hands, a barrel chest, and kind eyes, but his most striking and memorable feature was his expansive grey beard. Once when he and I were driving back from the lumber yard, windows rolled down, we stopped at a red light, and a kid in the car beside us called out the window, “Hi, Santa!” One time in a shopping mall he overheard a preschooler whisper, “Mom, I think I just saw God.”

And then he got cancer. And by the time the doctors discovered it, it was already in his bones and his lymph nodes and spreading. His oncologist said there wasn’t much they could do for an old silverback like him, and Walter told them, “I’m not sure how much I’d let you do.” His health care team talked about treatment options and pain management, and because oncology is a sober, realistic business the doctor told him he’d probably live about another two years. And so Walter asked me to build him a coffin because he was sober and realistic, too. I spent half a day with a Mennonite carpenter with a side business making simple, affordable, pine caskets, and we talked about standard dimensions, proper depth, strengths of different fasteners, how to build a lid, options for lining the inside, that sort of thing. And I built it just the way Walter had asked. On the top of the lid I added a small, simple cross that I made out of some century-old maple flooring I pulled out of a renovation job. I stored Walter’s coffin in the basement, and once when he and Anne, my mother-in-law, were over for a visit, he came downstairs to have a look at it. He paused, sighed, and said, “That will do,” and he went back upstairs. Six months later, Walter was dead.


His funeral was at the little Mennonite church in Kola, Manitoba. By the time the preacher got up and started droning on about how we could all be happy that Walter was in a better place, I had heard so much of that kind of sentimental religious boilerplate I almost didn’t care anymore. Between the time he died and the time he was buried, the grieving never really sank as low as it was supposed to in part because every word of sorrow was tied up with a smiley-face helium Jesus balloon. All my well-meaning in-laws, the brothers- and sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews, kept reminding us all that Walter was in heaven, face to face with Jesus, and all I could think was God bless the lot of them, they’re family after all, but all this cheerfulness keeps getting in the way of us all being properly, deeply sad.

It sure wasn’t obvious to me that there was anything to be cheerful about. He had been in this drawn-out process of dying for years, and when the doctors stopped treating his cancer and focused on pain management, when they switched from chemo to fentanyl, we knew this was it. And so we sat with him and visited and prayed cried, and the siblings took turns helping Anne look after him through the nights. Four months he was dying, dying, dying, and then early on that Saturday morning on May sixth, he was dead. The morning he died, I looked at his body there in his bed, and all I could think was that something was utterly changed, like someone had turned off the switch. He was gone. And all the cheerfulness about Walter being in a better place didn’t do anything for me except ratchet my blood pressure up a few points and give me a tension headache.

Now “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds,” and I say the whole thing every week, right on through to the end, without crossing my fingers behind my back, but I could not muster any happiness that Walter was with Jesus because as far as I could tell, Walter was really and truly dead.

So the preacher’s sermon was mostly just more of the same tedious spiritual bromide I’d been hearing all week. But when he suggested that the Walter-shaped corpse in the coffin at the front of the church was “only a shell,” that it wasn’t really Walter at all, I had to bite my tongue from jumping up and hollering, “Bullshit.” Maybe I should climb over the pews and up to the pulpit and punch you in the mouth, mister preacher, seeing as it’s not really you, only the puckering, yappy part of your so-called shell. If that’s not really Walter, why can’t I stop crying? And what the hell are we doing all of this for? Why all these flowers and cards, phone calls and emails? Why publish the obituary with a picture to announce to as many people as possible, that Walter George Kruse, born January first, 1945, died on May sixth, 2017? Why open up the church and welcome all three-hundred-plus of these guests, each dressed in their funerary best, all these men and women taking the day off work to have some small part in this tearful, sober rite? If all we’ve got here is just an empty shell that doesn’t really matter, why not just bag Walter with the kitchen scraps and make sure he’s out on the curb by six am Thursday?

That cold, pale body, prone and motionless in the coffin no empty shell. I built an empty shell. It took me twenty hours and the materials cost about a hundred and fifty bucks. That was the easy part. That body there in the box, that is really-and-truly Walter, and that’s why this is all so hard. That shell you just wrote off as a discarded, short-term holding tank for a soul is the corpse of the man who fathered the woman who became my wife. That shell lived an animated, respirating, metabolizing 72 years on this good earth. I have never met this soul to whom you keep referring. The only Walter I’ve ever known was a man with strong hands, calloused feet, bright eyes and pink lungs, whose bones of late had honeycombed and disintegrated, whose skin had turned yellow, patched with vast purple bruises. The body in that box is no shell, dear pastor. It is Walter. And Walter is dead.


There are plenty of ways to try to soften the blunt truth of our mortality — the undertaker’s euphemism “time of need”; our talk of someone having “passed on,” or “passed away”; a “celebration of life” in place of a funeral; bottles of boozy, amber liquid; cheery talk of heaven. All of them try to make reality a little less painful and the future — our future — a bit less frightening. A bent towards meaninglessness is another option:,in another couple years we’ll all be pretty much done with crying over Walter, and in a hundred years nobody will even remember his name, and they won’t remember mine or yours either, so who the hell cares anyways. I am, by disposition, more of an atheist than a true believer.

But the good grace of genuine love can out-muscle my nihilistic impulses, and love tells me that life is fleeting, but it is not meaningless. Life comes, and life goes; the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away: blessed be the name of the Lord. “It’s the immemorial things I like best,” says the poet and tobacco farmer Wendell Berry, “hunger, thirst, their satisfactions; work weariness, earned rest; the falling again from loneliness to love.” Things change; things come and go. Life is a gift; and death comes to all. I’m middle-aged, taking stock, watching my children slowly begin to replace me. My hearing isn’t what it used to be; my knees are often sore; my thinning hair is mostly grey; time is not on my side. But I get out of bed in the morning, even though I know I’ll just end up back in bed again at the end of the day, and I fill the van with gas, even though I just did it last week. I wash the dishes and I fix the faucet and I replace the chain on my bike. I am the father of three bright, joyful, growing, vulnerable children, and all those stupid clichés about how the passage of time, like “they grow up so fast,” or one I learned from my grandma, “the days are very long, but the years are very short,” they’re all absolutely true. My days tell me that this brief, fleeting existence means so, so much. You know this, too.


I’m not persuaded that Walter is in a better place. It seems self-evident to me that above-ground, warm and mobile is preferable to six feet under the earth, cold, and dead. Walter was made from dust, and now he is slowly returning to the dust. Everyone owes the earth a corpse.

But I believe in a resurrection. I am well aware that my hope for Walter’s resurrection is every bit as fantastical as believing his disembodied soul has somehow mysteriously floated up to the pearly gates and then some, but there it is: “I believe in the holy spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” However much it strains credulity, waiting for the resurrection at least allows that dead is dead. It doesn’t detract from the inescapable lived, felt meaning of all this, here, right now, and so it lets me be properly, truly sad when someone I love dies. I believe that Jesus loves Walter even now, somehow; that Walter is lost to us, but that Jesus is still keeping track of him now, even has he turns to dust. Walter is with Jesus: I believe that. In life, so as in death, real death, because God so loved the world — God so loved the whole of creation, including that six-foot hole in the ground just north of the little Mennonite church in Kola, Manitoba, where we lowered Walter into the earth and then took turns with the shovels filling the hole with soil — God so loved that piece of the ground, and God so loved Walter.

Common sense tells me it’s all or nothing; “either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing,” says Frederick Buechner. I can’t say for sure, and neither can you, and neither can my in laws or the well-meaning preacher, but despite my natural bent for unbelief, I turn my face towards the light and practice what it means to believe that Jesus actually loves me. Christianity is a seriously existential religion, and I continue to be persuaded that it is actually true because it doesn’t make light of the blunt truth that life is short. And the takeaway from that is: how you live your life actually matters. What you do with it is not a joke. That doesn’t mean you should get all worked up into knots about everyone’s cause or concern or that it’s your job to try to save the world, and it doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be mopey and morbid about everything either. It means no more than what it means: your life is important, and you damn well better take seriously how you choose to live.

Taking life seriously isn’t anything at all like taking yourself seriously. It’s hard to tell the difference between those two when you’re twenty and angst-ridden — to take life seriously but yourself not so much — but that’s why you don’t stay 20 for very long, and God-willing you get to 30, then 40, and 50, and so on, long enough, hopefully, to learn a thing or two about what to hold onto, what to let go of, what really matters, what on earth you’re here for, and who God is and the fact that you are not God: “Teach us to care and not to care,” says T.S. Eliot.

“How you spend your days is how you spend your life,” says Annie Dillard, and forgetting that that’s true is just about the easiest thing in the world. The weight of life — the gravity and weight and worth of life is astonishing and mysterious and vast and easy to forget, but then every so often someone you love dies and, you suddenly remember just how much all of this actually counts.

Above image credit: David Strang Gift 1955, William Strang, “The Resurrection”

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6 responses to “The Body and the Coffin”

  1. Paula S says:

    Walter sounds cool.

  2. Jt says:


  3. Sarah Condon says:

    This is one of the best things I’ve read on Mockingbird in a long time.

  4. Ginny says:

    This is beautifully articulated. Thank you for writing it, and thank you for sharing it, Mockingbird.

  5. Darren Sombke says:

    We buried my Dad on Saturday. Thank you for this.

  6. jb says:

    A great piece of writing, but i am Iffy on this idea of “I am a body.” It’s not my experience. I feel like I am trapped in a body. If I lose my finger, what am I? Two things, the body and the finger on the ground? No I think we have a soul and a body. If you take issue with the way people grieve, then that is one thing, doing away with the soul is something else

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