The act of building a coffin seems to spark the most interesting conversations about death and dying. The disclosure of my Life Box project seems to open the door for people to safely talk about their wishes, hopes, possibilities, and regrets at the end of theirs and others lives. The general consensus seems to be a wish for more openness and discussion in families and among friends. People have told me what they think their friend’s or relatives Life Box would look like and what they think it might have held in terms of memories, events, and experiences. I have heard so much tenderness and enthusiasm as people talk about death in the context of a Life Box. Here are some of the ideas that have arisen:

Certainly, death is something that is for us all (like birth); the exact moment or circumstance can’t be chosen but the threshold experience is there and the choice is available in how it is celebrated or marked (usually) after the fact. In this regard, how do peoples’ choices come to be and what are the possibilities of choosing differently (maybe like I have done)? We do have the power to change the cultural expectations around these threshold events.

Since so many things happen over a lifetime, symbolizing important events or anything notable becomes an exciting challenge. The creative and spontaneous process of making the box in someways allows the box to sort of make itself. I can have ideas about what I would like to include, but how those things actually manifest in reality are not going to be the exact match of my imagination. There is something about the process of the making that forms what will be. This is somewhat of a mystery at this moment. For example, I am practicing writing backwards because I want all the words to be a mirror image. How this will actually look once I start putting the writing on the wood will be different than it is on the paper that I practice on. The space is different and writing on wood versus paper will change the look of the resulting text to a degree.

I have also noticed that people still think that once the box is done, I will die. In some sense this is correct, I will die but maybe not right away (at least I hope not!). One person I talked to hoped that it would take a long time for me to complete the box for this reason. I have to admit, this repeated message is getting under my skin a little bit. I heard myself reminding her that I wouldn’t die once it was done; I didn’t see that as part and parcel of the process–you know…coffin’s complete, now I can (should) die. This magical thinking is something that I need to hold as a question and curiousity.

So, those are the main points for now.


My daughter put on a brave face and come down to my workroom to take a look at the progress of my box. She cautiously looked at what I was doing and touched the wood, noticed the boards I am practicing on, relaxed a little with the idea of it all. As we were talking about the other art that I have and if I would include certain pieces with the box, she came up with a great idea: sparklers! She thought that maybe sparklers lighting up when the fire started burning would be something I would find amusing as I looked down on the event from the other side. Brilliant, don’t you think? This girl knows me really well! I thought a lot about it this afternoon (well, it popped in and out of my imagination from time to time). I wondered what it would look like if I used the sparkler dust in the joints of the box, or even if I worked it into the lid so that it would light up and outline with sparks some of the things that I will put on top of the box. One of the rules is to have the box metal-free, so I will have to be somewhat careful about reining in my imagination so that I can incorporate this lovely addition.

The most interesting thing about my conversation with my daughter was how I could incorporate her ideas and how included she already was in the process. It is similar to my son’s suggestion about what I could call the box to change the resistance of people who I have talked to about it. I am appreciating their influences and their love of me and my eccentricities…nice…I am building that into my Life Box already…

Cutting and Practicing

Working at home occasionally has its advantages. I can set my own schedule, goals for what I need to do, and even take a break now and then. Of course, the wood is sitting there waiting for me and it calls to me as a distraction…and…I bite. This is how I managed to get a few things straightened out today…I call it an extended lunch and creative break.

I have had some struggles, and before moving into the technical side of them, I have to say straight out that I am afflicted by that odd feeling creeping in again (the one I had when I bought the wood). It hovers there around me as I handle the wood, work through the construction steps, and measure myself to make sure I will fit into the box in the end…just typing that feels odd. I am hoping that I will get used to it eventually. I find that the technical challenges distract me from thinking/feeling this way sometimes, but it is never far from my thoughts. I am still trying to understand what it is about, but haven’t been able to put my fingers on it yet. I have a few theories: it is confronting me with the idea/reality of my own death so the feelings around this arise; there is something abnormal about what I am doing and I am questioning if it is the ‘right’ thing to do (including writing this down here as a record) and feel the eccentricity around it; or maybe it is the desire to make it the most beautiful and well crafted piece and worrying about making a mistake/appearing stupid, after all everyone will see it eventually, right? All in all, my responses are still a bit of a mystery. Another thing that I have noticed is that I am talking about it less with people. Before, I was curious about peoples’ responses; now, I want to avoid their responses completely. Interesting…

Alright, on with where I am at these days. First, I was having trouble with my circular saw. After cutting a few boards and having them slightly angled (despite squaring the blade) I discovered that the blade was warped. The picture below is not very good, but I think you can see what I mean:

warped blade

The red line is the blade and you can see how it pulls away from the square at the edge. After realizing this problem I got out my handsaw, set up a wood guide and made a next to perfect cut:

wood guide cut piece

My handsaw is really sharp and it was easy to cut. In some ways it felt better to me as well–less ‘violent’ in the process (a friend mentioned this when comparing electrical versus hand cutting) and oddly, more personal.

I have also been practicing how to make the dowel joints, as I don’t want to make mistakes on the actual pieces. I am also looking at ways to see the dowel ends on the outside of the box, as I think this will be a nice decorative addition. Here is what I have done in my practice:

dowel clamp align edges bit collar plain bit dowel

I set the boards up by clamping them with the dowel clamps (pic 1), square them at the edges (pic 2), use the stop collar for drilling the inside edge (pic 3), and then a plain bit for drilling through on the outside edge (pic 4). I did chip the wood now and then with the drill bit going through (pic 5) and need to continue to practice to see what can prevent this problem. If I am doomed to be sloppy, I know that I can seal up these small chips in the end. My plan is to prepare all the boards for assembly, but do the artwork on each of them before I put the pieces all together. This will make it easier to work with as I am painting and decorating.

I think it is going to work out somehow…

Buying Wood

Ok, I have to admit that buying the wood for my box felt a little weird.

A friend of mine told me that he wanted to be there when the person in the lumber store asked me what the wood was for, mostly to see the expression on his/her face when I said, “my coffin.” Luckily, my friend didn’t come with me and the man at the store never asked about the project. However, it still had an odd feeling to it as I was standing there wondering what I would say if I was asked and wondering why I was feeling nervous about it. It’s just wood, right? Nonetheless, there I was anticipating the question and deciding if I should tell the truth or lie about it…and why? To protect him, me, or both of us from a potentially awkward situation? Maybe because the act of constructing one’s own box is so unusual in this culture, I anticipate a social stigma connected with questions about my sanity. After all, I was in a public place, discussing something that was more or less a private project.

All this aside, I did get some nice wood and was able to talk to this very knowledgeable salesman (a carpenter for 20 some years) about the best way of joining the pieces. Even though he never asked what I was doing, he was very warm and helpful. I could see his interest in wanting to help me construct it with the least problem and the most probability of success (what ever it was I was making!). Here’s what I bought (you can click on the photos if you want to see them in more detail):

Rules about Boxes

Before launching into the construction of my Life Box, I thought it was important to find out what the rules are around “containers” in my town. I had a few questions–what materials are acceptable, what size, construction limitations and so on. I learned some interesting things in my search. Here are the rules as I see it:

If the box is going to be incinerated (which is fine with me) it can’t have any metal on it at all. I decided to use dowels to hold it together. This metal issue also would include me, so no jewelry, glasses and so on.

The box can’t have any plastic, fiberglass, foam or styrofoam, rubber, polyvinyl chloride (this plastic could be in synthetic fabrics), or zinc.

It needs to have sufficient strength to contain and move my body.

It has to be sealed so that there is no leakage or possibility to cause a hazard to any person’s health (I like that idea). Not sure what I will use to seal it yet though.

It must be combustible and rigid so can be made of any wood–there are no restrictions in this regard. I am going with pine. It is nice and light, soft and easy to work with.

It needs to be capable of being closed so that people are not able to see my body. Lids are good in this case.

The operator of the crematorium needs to keep a record of the type of container that is used for the cremation. I am not sure what this means, but will find out in due time.

So those are the key rules as a starting point. I was also wondering about how funeral homes and the like would receive the news of a homemade Life Box as a container to hold, enclose, and transport my body. It seems that there are a few tricks to making sure that this can happen in an ethical way. I have created a file for my children/family with some of these ideas included, along with my will and a few other things that will be helpful.

In general, I think there is a lot of freedom in creating this box with the key rules not really interfering with the opportunity to be creative…

The Life Box

Alright-here goes…

While at the British Museum recently, I was looking at a particularly beautiful sarcophagus made by an Egyptian priest for himself. The box was decorated and inscribed by “coffin texts” or spells that would assist him in his passage to the afterlife. After spending a considerable amount of time looking at these strange and foreign inscriptions, painted designs and pictures on all sides, and sculptures and containers associated with it, I wondered what it would be like to create my own box. I am not a priest, but certainly am a person with a life that has been full of inspirations, texts, art and so on that might be interesting to have as a record of my life. Really, the more I thought about and think about it now, the more wonderful the idea seems. It could also be a beautiful art project in and of itself, done over many months (maybe years!) that could represent my life including the people and experiences I have had…so why not?

I tested the idea on my adult children, friends and colleagues. Some thought I was a little crazy (feeling alarmed by the idea of me building my own coffin) and others were really keen on the idea. On the negative side, people had a hard time getting past the idea of the coffin and its more morbid or frightening associations with death (and my death in particular). They really could not see the box as a celebration of my life. On the positive side, one person suggested that I record the process, and another suggested an “unveiling” party once it was done. Some people were so enthusiastic that they were giving me ideas about what I should include and how I should do it.

Taking into consideration the negative reactions, the key question for me is how to name it or frame it so that it can be seen by people as a positive project that can be put to good use someday in the future. In discussing my observations about people’s reactions with my son (including his own), he suggested I call it a “Life Box” and I like this idea. So, all negativity aside I have launched into building a Life Box with increased enthusiasm and a head/heart full of ideas and possibilities. This blog will be a record of my progress and the experience of putting it together as I move towards its eventual use.