An Undertaking: Woodworker Honors His Grandma with a Custom-Made Coffin

Good thing Austin-based design­er Michael Yates stud­ied abroad. Three months spent in the vicin­i­ty of Kyoto as a Texas A&M elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing stu­dent ulti­mate­ly inspired him to aban­don the pro­fes­sion for which he had trained, in order to pur­sue wood­work­ing. “…the sacred­ness of the process and atten­tion to detail res­onat­ed with me in a way that noth­ing had before,” he recalls in an Apart­ment Ther­a­py pro­file. “I’ve since learned in prac­tice what I saw evi­dence of in the temples—that com­plete­ly focus­ing on where you are will get you the best prod­uct at the end. Every step of the process is pre­cious.”

Had he not changed hors­es in mid­stream, his grand­moth­er would have like­ly stuck to the plan too, depart­ing for the after­life in a stan­dard-issue cof­fin or urn, rather than ask­ing Yates to build her some­thing spe­cial. In his mind, it was a col­lab­o­ra­tion, a process doc­u­ment­ed above, at the behest of Whole Foods’ online mag­a­zine, Dark Rye.  (Indi­cat­ing, per­haps, that arti­sanal, upcy­cled coffins will soon be avail­able for pur­chase beside bam­boo cut­ting boards and local­ly sourced, grass-fed, beef jerky?)

Yate’s grand­ma placed her request pre-need, in the indus­try lin­go, a move that afford­ed him plen­ty of time to study—and reject—the over­ly ornate ves­sels that have become a cul­tur­al norm. Lux­u­ri­ous details have no place, he feels, when the user can derive no enjoy­ment from them. (Guess he and Grand­ma weren’t con­sid­er­ing going with the off-the-wall Ghana approach.)

The cof­fin is the most mean­ing­ful piece he’s ever cre­at­ed, even before it could be beta test­ed. It caused him to think deeply about our rela­tion­ship with death and each oth­er. The sound­track hints that some­thing very sad is about to hap­pen, as do the pho­tos of his grand­moth­er as a vibrant, younger woman. (Such shots have become de rigeur for any­one mourn­ing an old­er rel­a­tive on Face­book.) Yates men­tions that his grand­moth­er, healthy when she hatched this scheme, has been diag­nosed with can­cer. I think we can assume where this is going, right?

At the risk of  a spoil­er, I’d like to com­mend the film­mak­ers for allow­ing some key scenes to occur off-cam­era. Yates remarks that after all that went into mak­ing the cof­fin, it would be “a ter­ri­ble miss” if his grand­moth­er did not get a chance to see it. He’s filmed load­ing it into his truck, but view­ers are not privy to its deliv­ery. Some things, it would seem, are still per­son­al.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Gus­tav Jung Pon­ders Death

Find Yale’s Course Death  in our col­lec­tion of 825 Free Online Cours­es

Leonard Cohen Nar­rates Film on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Fea­tur­ing the Dalai Lama (1994)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day oper­ates in the shad­ow of the South Brook­lyn Cas­ket Com­pa­ny. @AyunHalliday

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