Sincere thanks to all who took the time to write and submit stories for the True Tales of Woodworking Contest held by Lost Art Press to celebrate the publication of their new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life. Congratulations to the winner, Bruce Chaffin! The remainder of the judges’ top picks will continue to be published over at https://blog.lostartpress.com. I’ll be posting others (lightly edited) here over the coming weeks–they’re too good not to share.
This story comes from furniture maker Jeff Miller, who will be familiar to many readers from the pages of Fine Woodworking magazine.
My father’s coffin, by Jeff Miller
A few years ago, my adult son and I drove from Chicago to New York with my father’s coffin crammed into my Mazda micro-van. The coffin just fit, if you count being wedged between the front seats and extending from the tailgate all the way up to the rear-view mirror as “fitting.”
My father was not in the coffin.
I’d never thought about building a coffin, really. Although I’d seen Mike Siemsen and his crew build one at Handworks, and had seen Chris Schwarz’s blog post on the subject when he hosted a coffin building party to explore the topic for his book, both of these made me feel a little uneasy.
But when it became clear my father’s ten-year battle with cancer finally became un-winnable, I decided I would make his coffin. As opposed to the lighthearted fun of Mike’s and Chris’s builds, this one was intense, sad, and meaningful.
Despite the cancer and his age, my dad had always seemed immortal, as most of our parents do – up to a point. At 83 years old, he was still active and full of life. The two of us had taken a ski trip to Vermont together when he was 80. The weather was bitter cold, but the snow was perfect, and we skied nothing but expert slopes for three days. My concepts of aging and fighting cancer were radically upended.
I’ve always been fascinated by the transformation that takes place as I work, when a pile of fancy sticks turns into a piece of furniture. My first woodworking was building musical instruments. I was a musician at the time, and that change seemed even more magical and mystifying. How (and when) did a collection of wood bits transform into something able to play music, express emotions, and move an audience?
There was a different mystery when I went to the lumberyard to pick out the wood. The plain pine boards felt like a coffin the moment I touched them. And really, from that moment until I finished my father’s final resting place a few days later, I spent my time alternating between focused woodworking and reminiscences of life with my father.
Dad died about six weeks after I made the coffin. I never did tell him what I did. Despite the fact that he had chosen hospice, I didn’t feel he needed such a concrete reminder of where he was going. Instead, we chose to celebrate his life as best we could with the time we had.
It is a great blessing in the Jewish religion to be able to do something for someone when they can no longer do anything for themselves, or even thank you for what you’ve done. This is ritualized at the funeral, where the mourners will shovel a bit of dirt onto the coffin. This has always been the most painful and meaningful part of the burial service for me. But building the coffin expanded that moment and combined it with something I love to do for other reasons. It was a profound and moving experience — one that made coping with dad’s impending death much easier.