My friend Marg was building a coffin for her friend Bob.
Marg was happy and excited that she could give back in this way, being a carpenter. But her project plans had to take into account her disability, a persistent back pain that had put an end to her career as a building inspector and that she now spends her life managing.
When we get together Marg and I often collaborate on inventions and engineer projects that never get built. But now she was actually completing one of them.
The funeral home had given Marg the dimensions of the concrete box that the coffin would have to fit into with the admonition that another coffin builder had exceeded the dimensions and at the burial the coffin had not fit.
At lunch with our retired carpenter friend Pat, Marg described her plan—a rectangular box rather than the typical hexagonal coffin shape. She used one four by eight sheet of plywood ripped lengthwise for the sides and ends. Another ripped sheet made the bottom and top. She made the handles with rope.
“I had the lumberyard rip the ply for me, to save my back,” said Marg. “I can still use a Skil saw for short lengths but I don’t do ripping anymore.”
She screwed a ledger around the inside of the box so the bottom could just be dropped in and sit on the ledger. I’m an electrician, not a skilled carpenter, so I was proud of myself for knowing that a ledger is the ribbon of wood attached to the framing of a wall that the floor hangs on. I could totally visualize it.
“What size plywood are you using?” asked Pat.
“Half inch,” said Marg.
“Cross bracing?” asked Pat.
“Well, no,” said Marg. “I don’t think it needs it. I used structural plywood. Anyway, the coffin is now at the funeral home.”
Pat and I looked at each other and each knew what the other was thinking. I imagined the bottom piece of plywood bending with the weight of Bob’s body, the ply slipping off the ledger and the bottom piece along with the body falling out the bottom of the coffin as it was lifted up.
A moment of collective panic ensued. Marg frowned. She is a worrier.
“I’m sure it will be fine,” said Pat.
Marg’s description of her liberal use of glue and screws eased my concern.
Marg says there have been great strides made lately in screw technology. Hex head screws that go in easily and you don’t have to pre-drill.
“Remember when we didn’t have battery-operated drills?” I said. “I had to reach into my tool belt for a hammer and an awl to start the hole, and then screw in the screw with an old fashioned slotted head screwdriver. In those days we used ¾ inch sheet metal screws to strap our pipe to plywood. I had awesome forearms. People noticed my forearms.”
“Yeah, I had an awesome back till I fell off that ladder,” said Marg.
“And my knees were once awesome,” said Pat, who was recovering slowly from a recent knee replacement.
We were just generally awesome.