From the blog

Empty Coffins

by Jordan Faas-Bush

There are coffins in my basement.

My mom is a Natural Burial Consultant. She helps people know about options and plan ahead. She also sells eco-friendly coffins and caskets to families looking for a green alternative to soaking bodies with chemicals, sticking them in a metal box, then surrounding them with concrete and putting them in the ground. Last I counted she had eleven different caskets sitting in the basement of all different types of materials. They range from paper mache ones to banana leaf to pine, each biodegradable and each annoyingly heavy to carry (with the exception of the cardboard ones). I have moved more caskets around the house and to the car and into the living room than I care to count. The strangest part about it all, the absolute strangest part of it all, is that it isn’t strange.

It seems like someone who grew up with coffins in his basement should be able to tell you about death. I could tell you that every year more than enough metal is buried in the form of caskets or coffins to remake in its entirety the Golden Gate Bridge. That each year dead bodies are doused with enough embalming fluid to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool. Yet somehow I just didn’t think about death. Death just happened, it just existed as this strange fact of the world.

It wasn’t like I haven’t been exposed to death. My family has worked its way through three dead grandparents, two dead cats, four dead goldfish and a class pet that died shortly after we finished taking care of it. At a green burial conference I had been closed inside a coffin out of a simple curiosity to see what it was like. Yet, at the end of it all, death remained just a word. People died and then they were put in a coffin and buried in a grassy plot in a cemetery somewhere. There was nothing special about it, it just happened.

In the middle of my Freshman year of high school I was brought into our living room to talk with my parents. In a gentle tone they asked me if I remembered Jim. Of course I remembered Jim! Jim and Joanie were my first and second grade teachers. They were the ones who sent me a train valentine that I still have. Jim was the one who had us measure out a whale on the recess yard, had first made me enjoy writing, had made me start every day with a smile.

My parents told me that Jim had been chronically depressed. They informed me that Jim had gone missing. They told me that the adults at school feared for the worst. I stopped moving. It was hard for me to even imagine a frown on his face and now I was finding out that he had…

Our meeting wrapped up and I went on my way. I finished my latin homework. I read the last few pages of a chapter for english. I got ready for bed. I lay down. My parents came in and said goodnight. I lay awake for a while, staring into the distance. Then it hit me. I would never see him again. Never see his laughing face, never thank him for teaching me, never wander into his classroom and see him reading to his students. I would never see him again.

I lay in my bed. My emotions were growing, swirling, boiling over. I let out a choked sob. My tears started flowing. I lay in my bed, silently crying huge, painful sobs. I don’t know how long it was. All I know is that finally my tears slowed down, and then stopped. It was still painfully sad: I was just out of tears.

I realized I could do something to distract myself from my sadness. I had brought down a suitcase of stories from our attic a long time ago, intending on looking over them again. I still had it in my room, tucked into a corner. I got up, turned on the lamp and walked over the cold, hard floor to pull out the bag. It was a Thomas the Tank Engine suitcase, a tiny thing meant for a child, with brightly colored plastic and a see-through top. It was filled with the stories that Jim had convinced me to write.

In first and second grade, we had a class period where we had to write stories. I had hated it, never wanting to write anything. Then one day Jim came over. He told me I had to write something; after all it was the period for writing. I pouted, saying that I didn’t know what I should write about. He recommended that I pick a few random things, and start writing about them. And so, The Banana and the Helicopter was born, a set of stories about a daring banana, and his friend/companion/who knows what: the helicopter.

I read through the books, and when I was done with them, I poured through my day journals, filled with copied pages of library books that Jim would duplicate for anyone who wanted and informative pages saying things like “today was fun.” When I was finally done, it was around one in the morning. I set them down on the floor, lay down in my bed, and turned off the light. Then I slept.

The next evening when we received confirmation that Jim had committed suicide I didn’t cry. I was all out of tears.

Those coffins in my basement will eventually be filled, with your neighbor, with my mom, with the person you walked past yesterday. But it is those people still living who will have to deal with the aftermath, who will pay for the funeral, and keep the dead alive in our memories.

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