I grew up sitting on and eating from the work of my father’s hands. During his years as a missionary pastor in the Philippines, he crafted a long table and two benches from wood that he had planed with glass. My family gathered at that table for every meal, family devotion, Sabbath celebration, and special project that required space. Dad made a few other pieces of furniture during his life, but nothing was as central to our shared life as those solid, shaped pieces of wood.
It came as little surprise that when my father wrote down his final requests he stated his desire for a simple wooden casket, preferably made of oak. Since I adore fine craftsmanship but remain unskilled in that domain, Dad and I had pretty-well agreed that his would come from the Trappist monks of Iowa’s New Melleray Abbey. I had been to the abbey before, and Dad, an ardent conservationist, was delighted to learn about the sustainable forest management that guided the growth and use of their land’s lumber.
On the day my mother called and told me that Dad had taken a sudden downturn, I phoned New Melleray and ordered his coffin. The brother on the other end took the details and asked for my family’s prayers, even as he assured us of theirs. I then called a funeral director near my parents and gained his promise to accept the shipment and work with the simple coffin. It was a strong comfort to see and run my hand across the smooth oak in the wake of my father’s death, to have that tangible substance ground the impending absence. The funeral directors had never worked with an unhinged shaped casket lined with muslin before, but they agreed on its profoundly visible dignity. Tied with twine to one of the handles was a card with these words of blessing: “…By the hands of monks each day raised in praise of your goodness, this casket was fashioned for your child who died in faith. We ask you now to bless this casket. Receive the soul of our departed loved one who is laid in this humble bed as in a cradle, safe in your care until the day of resurrection, when we will all be reunited in the vision of your glory who are Father, Son, and Spirit, one God forever and ever.”
On the morning of the funeral, my older brother worked with me to prepare the back of a rented fifteen-passenger van for Dad’s coffin. On the floor of the van we laid the colorful Filipino-Muslim weaving which had often graced Dad’s table. Then as we were about to leave for the church, my brother dashed to Dad’s study looking for something he had to have in hand for the funeral. He couldn’t find it at first, but then he told me what he was scouring to locate. “It’s a little rough cross I made for him when I was seven. It always amazed me that wherever we went, Dad always put it out somewhere.” Right about that time, both of us turned to the spot where it was nailed to the wall. My brother pried it loose and was ready to go.
As people entered the sanctuary for the visitation prior to the service, they saw the “old-fashioned” coffin parallel to the wooden Communion rail. Inside was Dad’s body, vested in his favorite white and green chasuble. Resting on the floor and rising to the foot of the coffin was the lid, adorned with a carved wooden cross.
When the service ended, my brother put his rough-made cross in our father’s hands; then the lid was put in place and sealed. My nephews, my brothers, and I accompanied the wheeled coffin out to the van and lifted it on top of the tablecloth. We covered the coffin with an heirloom family quilt and secured it in place for the journey. In keeping with Dad’s wishes, an ivory funeral pall with a maroon and gold cross went on the very top as a reminder of baptism’s death and resurrection.
The four of us traveled with Dad’s body for the next five hours through rain and snow, sleet and dark, five days before Christmas. Our destination was Carpenter, the hamlet where my dad grew up, and Quercus (oak’s botanical name) Grove Road—where church and cemetery meet. The pastor and the funeral director were waiting for us at the church, so we wheeled Dad’s coffin inside. There, in that sanctuary, where his father had been pastor for nearly forty years, where he had been baptized and confirmed, where he first and repeatedly communed, and where his parents and sister were also laid out in their coffins, we left Dad for the night.
The next morning, St. Thomas’s Day, a handful of friends and relatives gathered in the sanctuary, then walked behind the van across the road to the cemetery—the pastor chanting all the way. At the edge of dormant farm fields, beside the empty grave and the oak coffin, I read the monk’s blessing and a poem. My brother Nathan then read these words he had written early in the morning when unable to sleep:
I placed in your hands
a cross of wood.
we place on you
a cross of mourning.
It surrounds you now,
that wood you loved—
the gift from a son
to his father a week ago.
It carries you.
of unfinished things
replaced by the beauty
of finished work.
On returning from the burial, I found in my mailbox a cross, identical to the one atop the coffin, which the Trappists had sent as a keepsake. The rough cross my brother gave up and buried with our father was replaced by this smooth one; a new layer of memory had been added to experience. Reading back over the Trappist brochure, I spotted another detail that I had missed before: the brothers plant a new tree in memory of each casket recipient. Even though Dad’s coffin was vaulted by cemetery decree, the tree promised the ecological continuance of which Aldo Leopold wrote: “Dust unto dust is a desiccated version of the Round River concept…. A rock decays and forms soil. In the soil grows an oak, which bears an acorn, which feeds a squirrel, which feeds an Indian, who ultimately lays him down to his last sleep in the great tomb of man—to grow another oak” (quoted in Harris 2007, epigraph).
We were able to do Dad’s funeral and burial as we did because I have become somewhat conversant on matters of simple, or green, burial over the years. It goes back to the time that I heard Lisa Carlson speak in a Quaker meetinghouse, which led me to read her book Caring for the Dead. When a funeral director angrily told me that what I was trying to do was illegal, I was able to inform him to the contrary… and also that I would be happy to find someone else who would work with me. After all, I had been my father’s primary caregiver for six years of his demise, and I wasn’t about to be relieved from those final acts of caring.
The culturally established way of dealing with death and burial tries to mask, prevent, and deny the decay of one’s body; to keep it from the soil which is the source of all subsistence. Mark Harris observed that “a lasting legacy to a life well lived may be as basic as good earth. Our best last act may, in fact, be the simple act of using what remains of our physical existence to fertilize depleted soil, push up a tree, preserve a bit of wild from development, and, in the process, perpetuate the natural cycle of life that turns out to support those we leave behind” (Harris 2007, 186). These words are much more consistent with the biblical picture of creation’s goodness and interconnectedness than the earth-denying, artificial burial practices that even many Christians aspire for upon death.
Christians sometimes ignore the reality that the flesh-and-blood God among us (known as “the Christ”—the anointed one) worked as a carpenter. Some argue that tektn can also be translated as “builder,” but even if Jesus was skilled as a stonemason, the truth remains that he worked with divinely created matter. Justin Martyr makes early mention that Jesus was known to have made plows and yokes, and that insight finds great resonance in Jesus’ remarks about “putting one’s hand to the plow” or “taking his yoke upon us.” For all our Lutheran emphasis on vocation, it took an Anglican to give us the only familiar hymn which refers to Jesus as a carpenter “whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe” (Struther, Jan. “Lord of All Hopefulness.”)
A prayer used regularly by the Iona Community does a masterful job of reconfiguring our picture of the incarnate and crucified, buried, and risen Jesus in the realm of his ongoing work: “O Christ, the Master Carpenter, who at the last, through wood and nails, purchased our whole salvation, wield well your tools in the workshop of your world, so that we who come rough-hewn to your bench may here be fashioned to a truer beauty of your hand” (“Tuesday Prayer”).
I saw that beauty in the wood of my father’s life and death. And I see it still in all the trees that our carpenter-Lord pushes up from this good earth.
Joel Kurz is the pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri.
Harris, Mark. Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. New York: Scribner, 2007.
Iona Community. Iona Abbey Worship Book. Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2001.
Struther, Jan. “Lord of All Hopefulness.” In Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005): #738.