Generations My Father’s Final Gift to Us? He Planned a Natural Burial
His bluegrass band at the gravesite? Check. No embalming? Check.
Tackling a to-do list written by a dead man feels both intimate and absurd to me. In my hands, I hold two pieces of paper, a bump of pregnancy visible on my lap, while my six-year-old daughter sleeps in my childhood bed upstairs. Sitting in my mother’s upholstered reading chair, I face the cast-iron wood stove that heated my parents’ house during the mild Alabama winters. In that moment, I recall getting dressed in front of the stove as my father saved both money and energy in the seventies by heating our house with wood gleaned from the suburban forests of our neighborhood.
“We should try to do one thing on the list,” I say to my siblings, close to midnight. “It’s the least we can do to honor his plan.” We nod in unison, much like we harmonized on the gospel songs he taught us to sing around the piano.
Mere weeks after my fifty-eight-year old mother died in a bicycling accident as she was headed to a local farm to pick up produce, my father requested that his grown children return to our hometown of Fairhope, Alabama for a family meeting. At the gathering, he presented a two-page typed plan for his own burial. He was in the best shape of his life, capable of hiking, biking and even thinking faster than any of us. The details of this plan included: a hand-carved pine casket, a linen tablecloth as a shroud, a pickup truck to transport the casket, no embalming of his body or concrete vault in the grave, his bluegrass band at the gravesite, and shovels for his children, grandchildren, and friends to fill the grave with soil.
“We’ll follow the plan,” we told him, indulging this stalwart sixty-two-year-old man who cherished both logistics and conservation. At the time, I exchanged glances with my sister, believing we were merely indulging a man deep in grief. For two years, the papers sat in a file cabinet in an upstairs bedroom.
My parents built their lives on a legacy of both health and faith: They ate vegetarian meals, meditated twice a day, and hiked thousands of miles to complete the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and almost all of the Continental Divide Trail. My born-and-raised-in-Mississippi mother traversed glaciers with an ice axe and also hosted luncheons with china and sterling silver for her bridge group. My father made a stove from a pineapple can for hiking from Mexico to Canada and then returned home to sing bass in the church choir. She was a member of the Altar Guild at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, responsible for setting out the linens, polishing the candleholders, and preparing the wine and bread for communion. He spent his career selling IBM computers to hospitals and universities, taking advantage of a buyout from the company to adopt a minimalist lifestyle of biking roads, hiking trails, and caring for grandchildren, who happened to be my children too. After her death, he spent even more time volunteering on the organic farm aptly named Bee Natural Farm, which had provided the fresh food at their table. But he only biked on roads with wide shoulders, wore a fluorescent-orange safety vest, and preached bicycle safety in her absence.
Two years after my mother’s death, my father was killed in a mirror-image accident while bicycling to the farm: Two male teenage drivers. Two collisions. Two broken necks. Two sudden deaths on two different roads.
Many people don’t realize that embalming is not legally required by any state in this country: It’s a relic of the Civil War designed for shipping bodies home after battle. My father knew the state of Alabama required burial within three days, if the family didn’t choose to pump chemicals into a dead body, as he put it. In fact, when I was in middle school, he built a replica of a pine casket the size of his palm, and told us he wanted his funeral to be a homegrown celebration that relied on family and friends, and not a funeral home. For the majority of my life, my mother kept her modest collection of jewelry in the prototype, which seemed like a practical function for the smooth wooden box that sat atop her dresser.
The morning after my father’s death, we call his friend Jeff, who agrees to build the pine casket in forty-eight hours. “I have the perfect piece of pine in my shed,” Jeff says without hesitation, as if he has been expecting the call. It turns out that my father talked to him about building the casket soon after my mother’s death. He broached the idea as they were both on their knees, weeding vegetable beds together at the Bee Natural Farm in exchange for local produce. After pulling an all-nighter to finish the urgent carpentry project, this long-time friend discovered old sailing lines in my father’s basement that he could attach to the casket, so we could lower it into the grave ourselves. On the front porch of the house, the summer Alabama air thick with humidity and the buzz of mosquitoes, we ran our hands over the pine box, sanded smooth like a bar of Ivory soap.
“We can use my pickup truck to take the casket from the church to the gravesite,” Jeff tells us, his eyes bloodshot, his voice focused. Because it seems like we should capture the moment, we all take a photo, my siblings and Jeff, standing in front of my father’s casket, our hands touching the wood that will hold his body. We are marking time in a haze of logistics, led to the next task by two pages of typed instructions.
In the living room, we check items off the list: His bluegrass band at the gravesite? Check. No embalming? Check. No vault at the gravesite? Check. A few phone calls nail down most of the other details.
But in a hit-and-run accident, the coroner transports the body to a funeral home, not the family’s home, as my father had wished. He had wanted his body to lie on the bed he shared with my mother, his body covered by her quilted bedspread. So instead, my brother and I meet with the funeral home director, who agrees that we can prepare our father’s body for burial without the involvement of his staff. When we leave the air-conditioned funeral home, we step into the ninety-five-degree heat of the asphalt parking lot, adjacent to the red-and-yellow signage of a Sonic drive-thru, and give each other joyous high-fives, as if we are closing a high-stakes corporate agreement, rather than a natural burial for one man.
The next day, my sister and I retrieve two white linen tablecloths, place them in the backseat of my beat-up Subaru Outback, drive into town and enter the doors of the funeral home, where the director escorts us to a refrigerated room. I am afraid to watch him open the door, afraid of what lies inside, even though my father has prepared me to enter these doors, to encounter his body after his life has ended.
“Let me know if you need anything,” the funeral director says, with an air of uncertainty, as if he is abandoning guests at his own dinner party without serving them supper.
But he does leave us with our father, lying on a metal gurney, his eyes shut, a few cuts and scratches of dried blood on his naked body, covered in a paper sheet, in this cold, cold room. The room smells antiseptic, like a refrigerator that has been deep-cleaned.
“He doesn’t look like he’s been in an accident,” I whisper, speaking to the air that surrounds my father’s body as much as to my sister who stands beside me.
After slowly approaching his body, I touch his weathered face: Four diagonal wrinkles crease each of his cheeks, just like my cheeks, a marking that will deepen with my age. I push tears off my face, feel a sob heaving in my chest, and then remember he has given us a plan, something to hold onto.
As he sang to us at bedtime, we sing an African American gospel lullaby to him:
“ I got shoes, you got shoes, all of God’s children got shoes.
When we get to heaven gonna put on our shoes
and gonna walk all over God’s heaven, heaven, heaven.”
Then we face a more difficult task as we have to wrap his body, pick up its solid weight, and place our father in the casket, which Jeff brought to the funeral home in his pickup truck earlier in the day.
How do you speak to the dead? When you know they cannot hear you, but you wonder if that they might actually feel your meaning? I’ve heard people say that they knew the spirit of their parents was not present in their dead bodies, but this body looks like my father to me. And I feel at a loss for words to preface our actions, the next steps of preparing him for the grave.
“Lord love a duck,” I say, repeating one of my mother’s mindless phrases that seem to make perfect illogical sense.
Tenderly, we move him, raising the left side of his body and then the right, pulling the linens around his body, cradling his thin shoulders, feeling the weight of his legs lift and fall in our arms, wrapping him in the same cloth that my mother starched and ironed for every holiday table she prepared.
Breathing in, we stand on opposite sides of his body and pick up this lean man, all muscle and little fat. It takes all of our effort—two strong women who can carry toddlers and cook dinner at the same time—to carry the full weight of the compact body of our father. I am holding the entire world as I lift him into the wooden container. Our faces are wet, our noses dripping. Our young children who will never grow up with our mother or father are playing in the woods behind their home. In one day, they will wear their Sunday clothes to church and the gravesite and pick up shovels as tall as their heads, embodying the story of my father by shoveling dirt onto his casket, while his bluegrass band plays the gospel tunes he loved.
After giving him one last kiss on the cheek, we pick up the wooden top to the casket and place it on the box, which will be buried the next day. Then we leave the frigid room, walk through the air-conditioned halls, and step into the heat of the Alabama sun that shines.