Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Grey Metal Casket

           
This is it.



             One of the strangest things about having a child die suddenly is that all at once, there are many questions asked of you. Will you be wanting burial or cremation ? Where are the remains to be buried ? Where is the funeral to be held ? Do you want an open casket or a closed one ?  How much do you want to spend ?  Will you be needing embalming services ?  No one really cares that your child collapsed and died three hours ago, and no one knows why.

                 In the past I have thought of myself as someone whose mind works fairly quickly. As a critical care nurse I have functioned well and thought clearly in any number of pretty horrible emergencies both in and out of hospitals, but nothing can compare to the sudden absence of your child's spirit from his body, before your eyes. Nothing can compare to being told that since there was no "foul play" suspected that any autopsy would have to be at your own expense ***, and nothing can compare to being asked a number of fairly complex final questions when you have absolutely never considered such things where your child is concerned. We actually didn't know of a single funeral home in our area.

               Part of the reason I had difficulty answering such questions is that the questions and the answers were complex. Our farm actually has a family cemetery, and despite the frozen ground, we wondered if it could be used for Daniel's remains now. Secondly, how could someone have an open casket funeral after an autopsy ? Thirdly, why was embalming required by law ?   Somehow we navigated this very difficult time and item by item came up with answers to these mind bending questions. We chose to have the funeral in the county seat of the place in which Daniel and our other children had homeschooled. We thought that more of his friends could attend this way, rather than holding the funeral in Charlottesville, which had been my first leaning. We learned that despite the autopsy, that great care had been taken to allow an open casket funeral afterward. I did not want this, but my husband did, and who was I to argue ? He too had lost his youngest son that day. Also at that time, we chose cremation, just as my parents, grandparents, and aunts had.  And so, we needed to buy a casket, not for him to be buried in, because his remains wouldn't be, but simply for the hours of the viewing and the funeral itself.  Afterward, we could have given it back to the funeral home where it would be refurbished and presumably used again.  We selected a rather heavy metal casket painted a matte gray with shiny silver toned handles.  Inside it was lined with a particularly soft pillow and white soft lining which reminded me of the fabric of the gown and clothing Daniel wore for his christening. The funeral itself was quite beautiful and well attended. It truly was a celebration of Daniel's life with many people ranging in age from babyhood to in their eighties in attendance. Even a cat named Macintosh, that Daniel truly loved, that belonged to a friend, attended the gathering in a carrier.

                   All of the decisions we made we solid reasonable ones, perhaps except for one. Rather than giving the coffin back to the funeral home afterward, we decided, in advance, to keep it. There was a great deal of metal in it and we'd paid what we considered a great deal for it. Daniel was a big believer in recycling and repurposing almost everything, and perhaps this was a hats off to him.  Perhaps our eldest son, who was completing his degree in sculpture at university could use the metal and fashion an incredible sculpture of some kind. He certainly had with other heavy large metal items. The funeral home wanted it off their property as quickly as possible after the funeral.  The day after, we secured it to one of our trucks using multiple bungee cords and covered it with a tarpaulin. As we drove the distance to the farm, periodically the tarp would blow upwards in the wind, and drivers behind us would see that we were toting a coffin. Daniel would have thought this hysterical. I remember being an odd combination of distraught and amused as they passed our truck, looking strangely at us. Why shouldn't I want the casket? I thought. We didn't yet have Daniel's ashes back. I still wasn't sure that the happenings of that week weren't a terrible nightmare.  When we got home, we placed the coffin in one of our outbuildings on its back. I was surprised to see that the pillow and lining were still intact and clean and had not been removed.
              It didn't matter how much we said that Daniel's casket didn't really have anything to do with him and how repurposing it as a sculpture would have pleased him. Our eldest son, who had originally planned to use the metal in a project was struck by lightning while closing up another wooden building with a metal roof here in August of 2011. Although he survived, he had a number of ongoing medical problems which limited his use of the welders and equipment necessary to completely take down the casket to its component parts.
            And so, an empty gray casket sits alone and waits in an empty building here on our farm, and has now for eight years.  It remains as beautiful and as clean as the day in which I first saw it. It has taken eight years for me to be able to tell you this. Perhaps 2017 is also the year in which the casket is set free to become something else other than a symbol of a very sad day indeed.

















***The University of Virginia Medical Center eventually chose to make Daniel's case a teaching one, as no clear structural cause of his passing could ever be demonstrated. Since his cause of death was theoretical, we were never billed for multiple autopsies by different pathology teams. The cause of death was surmised to be a functional cause of death, a supposed heart rhythm disturbance in a heart that appeared healthy otherwise. We learned later that this flaw of heart rhythm does run in our family, and it had to be treated by ablation in other family members.

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