when my great great grandma and great great great grandpa stayed up all night crafting a coffin for a home funeral... summer of 1887

Back in the summer of 1887, my great great grandmother and her father, my great great great grandfather, stayed up all night making a coffin out of whatever they could find. They lived on a homestead in the Dakotas, and when their good friend died, there was no access to the typical funeral "things." They used a board from the attic and lined it with cheesecloth. They carried it to the family under the seat of their buckboard. A simple ceremony took place. A lovely home funeral.

I've been reflecting on spirituality & ancestry, generally, and my own connection with my blood ancestors, specifically. I've been particularly inspired from listening to the podcast Bespoken Bones (http://bespokenbones.com/). And then.... my great great grandmother's personal home funeral account falls into my hands! I'm in awe.

I was absolutely delighted to receive a copy of this letter from my mom, who got it from my aunt. I had no idea that coffin-building (specifically, parent-daughter coffin-building*) and home funerals ran in my blood! I feel humbled, connected, and joyful. Thanks for letting me share. (And a special thanks to Aunt Lenore for taking note and sharing.) Read the whole story below, if you like.

love, sarah

*https://www.holdingspacetogether.com/blog/2017/9/11/my-momma-and-i-are-on-the-radio-a-story-of-mother-daughter-casket-making

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FREE workshop: BEING WITH THE DYING

DC Community: tomorrow I'm leading a short, free workshop, "Being with the Dying," at Potomac Massage Training Institute (by Silver Spring metro).

It will be an interactive exploration of our own somatic wisdom. We'll discuss how resting in our own authenticity can lead to the work itself being nourishing, even in the face of death and loss.

EVERYONE is welcome... please pass on the word if you know anyone who may be interested! Thanks! xo -s

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My momma and I are on the radio! a story of mother-daughter casket-making...

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/docproject/1.4271714

please click link above to listen. my mom is a star, and my dad even makes a cameo at the end :)

*working on getting a transcript available asap to make sure it's accessible for all*

Love, Sarah

ADDENDUM: I got the transcript from the radio station! Unfortunately it's not great, because it was done by a machine. But here is what I have for now:

Transcript for “Coffin Class” - an original documentary on CBC’s The Doc Project

           

 

I've been telling people obviously that I'm going on vacation and they'll say, “What are you doing, where are you going?”

 

“They're always in shock. They'll question why and what are you going to do with it and why, why are you building a casket, Michelle?”

 

Welcome to the North House everybody. I'm Randy Schnobrich and I'm teaching the “bury yourself in your work” building your own casket class.

 

A lot of people think it's just a morbid idea to build your own casket. But for a lot of people they're more realistic about the end. And they think it could be kind of cool to have a hand in creating something that they'll be buried or cremated in.

 

So we're going to have to determine this morning how big you want your box to be and how deep it is.

 

This is going to have to be 24 and a half and it is exactly 24 and a half I can't gain one pound.

 

My name is Michelle Ilstrup. I am from Minneapolis Minnesota. I'm 53 years old. I've gone through many deaths many scenarios in life where I... that that was difficult and that was expensive and I wish somebody would have told me you don't have to do it that way. We're trying to figure out the width...

 

From his point of view. It should be bigger and bigger.

 

My name is Sarah Hoops and I live in Washington D.C. My name is Libby Hoops and I'm from Minneapolis Minnesota.

 

She's my mom. Mother daughter.

 

Yeah I know that.

 

So I weighed my options between wool class and casket making with you and wool was full.

 

So I that a decision was made and was made. I know maybe it seems strange that I'm in my 20s and I want to take a casket making class.

 

The reason why I wanted to was because of my work and the death and dying field. I've been working as a hospice caregiver and I really loved it and now I'm establishing my own business as an end of life doula basically offering holistic support to people who are dying or have a serious illness. And along with that I'm learning how to become a home funeral guy. And that's what led me to this class. I wanted to learn how to make a casket so I could pass that skill on to my clients if that's what they want to do.

 

I wrapped my head around the casket making and realized I'd have special time with it.

 

So I doubt it actually originally I asked Dad to take the class with me. Remember. Yes. And he didn't want to.

 

It's an area that's foreign to him and he wouldn't jump into it at all. Literally.

 

Couldn't keep it up. You can go in there all together. We do a double decker.

 

So we decided oh you know what we should make it for my dad it sized extra tall intentionally for him appropriate for him whether he uses it or not.

 

And in the meantime we can use it as a coffee table or something like that. I want it to be raw wood so I'm going to ask him to give me some raw wood for the top.

 

You know part of it is it's it's less expensive. You know you can take a class. Learn more about woodworking. If you think spaghetti Westerns are different things it's a pine box and I think it's a beautiful simple way to address the situation when you're grieving. You say yes to anything we said yes to a $10000 casket for my mom.

 

That she was shown in for you know two hours and then we buried her in it.

 

I feel like my parents generation you just didn't talk about this kind of stuff and it's like oh my god if there's something that's going to happen to all of us we're all going to die.

 

OK we'll see if this one works. I think we should play with all eight or so we have a puzzle match.

 

I mean obviously I know that somebody might use this maybe even someone in our family. It could be tomorrow you know. But that's more of a head kind of knowledge. No but there's a warmth to thinking that somebody you love might.

 

Be surrounded by something you created.

 

Yeah. Because I think it is a labor of love.

 

Yeah for sure.

 

So how do you feel it's going maybe even when it's more complete it'll feel more eerie that it's really a casket that I'll be buried in. But right now it's just a piece of wood.

 

Twenty four half inches wide.

 

When my husband got sick from cancer when he was diagnosed we were all in shock. So I did not prepare for it. I was told many times he was going to die and we didn't prepare for it.

 

You know you plan a birth and you have parties and showers and you get the bedroom ready and then you have celebrations but you don't do that completely for death. And I think we should. What do you think about the bird wing design for the handle's.

 

Angel wing. Yeah far back.

 

To making that casket.

 

We've been joking around a lot. It has brought up some more serious end of life conversations even just like you didn't know that I have an end of life wishes notebook in my room.

 

No. That's correct.

 

And also you have reminded me that I don't have one created yet.

 

I just think everybody should have it written down because right now what if you died today I wouldn't know if I should cremate you or bury you.

 

You know what I mean. I mean I guess we would use the pine box but.

 

I screwed up. Should I cry now or later.

 

Yeah.

 

Well a couple of the joints are kind of in the wrong spot. So we've got to do a little creative problem solving.

 

I'm a slightly indecisive person and it has led to lots of ideas stuff ideas. Some have grabbed hold of me and I'm interested in perhaps putting that in the notebook for other people to see.

 

I can't stress that enough and not only after you've died but if you die in such a way that you're receiving care and advanced character it is really important.

 

My mom had a major stroke and she was the one that made the decision to be unplugged. And we were all very grateful for that because that would have been hard to make that decision on her own.

 

Obviously.

 

And part of the drive here is to give a little bit more thought to your Memorial or the process of dying and maybe come to grips with it. Carla took the class one of the first years and she confided in me that she'd been fighting cancer and she was losing so she anticipated dying relatively soon. She had been getting a lot of chemo treatments so we ended up having a futon in the shop space because she had very little energy and literally had to take naps during the class and then she was going to need help for me but she was adamant about working on every aspect and she did a great job. Towards the end she was curious.

 

Well now that we've made it let's see how it fits so she laid down in the casket and I was standing above her and she folded her arms and kind of closed her eyes and laid there for a second. And that just it really struck me because it was powerful to think you know this isn't five 10 years away. This is in the near future and I really think that her taking this class was a huge step in just accepting it and having something to do with controlling you know more aspects of the I have a stone with my name on it and my birth year.

 

It's just waiting for the death the year I'll be with next to my husband. You know my children know this is where mom's going to be.

 

And it's taken care of all they have to do is put the date in and have a party. Amen.

 

Teaching this class does allow me to think more about my own death and myself I think I'd just as soon be put in the ashes and then bury a tree with me or do something you know better for the earth with it instead of feeling like you're you're fighting everything and just go along with death and try and you know enhance your life. There is more of an intensity today because. We have to. Applies to the big one because it's going to work.

 

All that. That is not going.

 

Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.

 

My dad would say I've been aware that my parents are getting older. I mean I've definitely popped into my head thinking about oh wow who's going to die first. What's it going to be like. Because I've seen a lot of children lose their parents in the past couple of years.

 

This is a great mother daughter activity or I would think Parent Child is I think because it's a it's it's sharing in an obtuse way of life about you. It's a way to get deeper into a relationship rather than the day to day business. It's really special for me.

 

OK let's try to put them on. All right. Clean.

 

Now having been in the class I'm thrilled that the wool class was in full because I've had the best time... new skills, deeper relationship with my daughter.

 

Meeting other people hearing stories it just gives me an opportunity to think about where I am and where I wish to go from here what I've come up with is the desire to make relationships important in my life.

 

Yeah and we don't have that much time together so because we live far away and we haven't ever spent time like this together.

 

They die and they never come back. I sometimes have troubles getting past that they never come back. That's just where you really have to love people then while they're here.

 

Yeah man that’s it. No one is falling through that. It looks like a perfect fit. Michelle.

 

How did you feel when you saw box for the first time. It took me aback.

 

A little startled to see it come into form. I really felt gratified seeing it for the first time as an actual casket shaped. Rectangle.

 

As it should be. We did make it for Rob. He's turning 60 today. Today is his birthday.

 

I think it should be a birthday present. Cause I haven’t gotten him a present.

 

I think it will be a gift. Yes.

 

Dear. Very nice person. I've never received anything quite like this. That's good. OK. Which which is the front and worth the back. You get it too. But you. And. Whoever else in our family first come first served first come first. So you're going to get in right.

 

A test run. I don't know how do I know you're not going to nail it shut. I'll try it again. I don't know.

 

Oh. Plenty of room.

 

It smells very nice and fresh pine... feels comfortable for eternity.

 

There's just one more thing though. See if it fits in the van. Oh.

 

So flip it towards me. It's close. We're taking this babyi home with us. Oh oh. Oh. Man we can't close the door. I think it's going to.

 

Don't fight this thing. I'm partial to oh. My.

 

Goodness. How. Is your friend.

 

If I slam on the brakes and I'm not in the coffin. The.

 

 

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