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ashes to ashes

Coffin - NYT article

Photo by Robert G. Fresson

For folks who feel nourished by authentic conversations about the very unpopular topic of death and dying, it’s a relief to stumble upon people who are willing to face their own mortality.  And Jeffrey Piehler, the author of “Ashes to Ashes, but First a Nice Pine Box,” does that beautifully, and in a way that’s unusually brave, tender, and filled with humor.  Reading his words in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times Sunday Review reminded me of what I learned when my mother was dying four years ago: facing death can be incredibly enlivening.  It’s an opportunity to get real with ourselves and each other about what matters most.  And it goes without saying that the sooner we do that, the better!

For Jeffrey Piehler, stage four cancer made death very real and proximate.  As he tells the story of why and how he built his own coffin, three passages touched me especially:

“We each spoke of what we wanted to accomplish with our remaining lives, and what we regretted in our pasts. The coffin slowly took on its recognizable shape, prompting me to speak of my fears of death and of leaving my family behind. In moments like this, we set aside the tools, and we would sit and talk quietly.”

The project has smoothed the rough edges of my thoughts. It’s pretty much impossible to feel anger at someone for driving too slowly in front of you in traffic when you’ve just come from sanding your own coffin. Coveting material objects, holding on to old grudges, failing to pause and see the grace in strangers — all equally foolish. While the coffin is indeed a reminder of what awaits us all, its true message is to live every moment to its greatest potential.

I’m inspired by the way this man is befriending the end of his own life, and grateful for his willingness to be public about it.  What a great gift.  As a once-in-a-while poet, I especially loved the ending:

“I find comfort in knowing where my body will lie, and just above it, embossed on the underside of the coffin’s lid, in front of my sightless eyes — my favorite line of poetry: “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.””

I invite you to read the whole story which begins when Jeffrey Piehler announced his plan to his wife and a friend, over a glass of wine.