How to Build a Coffin…

First you need to find a brother. We got Phil after I left home at 17.  He dated my sister for some time and worked for Daddy building Handcrafted Furniture Built To Last at Daddy’s store, The Loading Dock Furniture.

My sister and Phil weren’t meant to last and Daddy kept him anyway.  Phil is the strong silent type, smart and with a quick wit; he shared my fathers love of history and politics.

Phil had lost his family and Daddy, never one to pass on a good opportunity, loved Phil like a son. When Daddy loved like that, there was no going back.

Phil married Carrie and the kids were born. The kids called Daddy Grumpy Bill.

And so it goes. I have a brother, a sister-in-law and a niece and nephew to love. That’s what Going Your Own Way can get you; a brother and his family to love.

Daddy wanted to have his body, “Thrown to the wolves. Do NOT spend a dime on my funeral,” he would say, “It will just be a piece of meat. Recycle me. Feed me to the wolves.” He was NOT kidding.

My dad could be cheap and he could be practical. He meant every word of this. Trouble was, his body was already in the mortuary. They wouldn’t just release him and where would we keep him anyway? Our sister and her husband were coming in from England and we needed her to see daddy before we fed him to the wolves.

Carrie and I met with Mr. Hanes at Lensing mortuary. The price list was mind-boggling. I could hear daddy rolling in a grave we would never purchase for him.

Coffins came up. You need one for cremation. Go figure. Carrie looked at me and I looked at her and without a word it was decided:

“We will build our own coffin.” Carrie said.

“That’s right! It shouldn’t take long,” was my reply. Winkel Women know our way around a wood shop.

We know our way around welders, and torches too. We can mount and balance your tires and fix that dent on your right rear fender. Hell, I can build a paint booth, hook up the air compressor and paint that fucker too. We can also beat you at Scrabble.

That comes with the territory of Going Your Own Way.

Mr. Hanes could see Carrie meant business. You do Not mess with Carrie, I will tell you that.

“Well,” Mr. Hanes said, “I do believe this has been done once before. It seems to me, close to 80 years ago.”

“You will need to build it to exacting standards though. The measurements must be exact.”

Carrie flipped over the glossy casket sales brochure and grabbed her pen, “Great. What would those exact measurements be?”

And so it went.

Phil drew up the plans using Loading Dock design principles. He drew the plans in my dads shop while my son played with his cousins using wood pieces as swords. Carrie, my sister Andrea and I kept Mommy company in the house next door.

My husband, my brother Phil, and my brother-in-law Paul, who had just arrived from London, loaded in my dads van and headed to the lumber yard to get the few things we needed to build my fathers coffin.

We built that coffin together. We laughed and we cried and She was a Beauty; simple, cheap, and built with love. Handcrafted, Daddy liked to tell customers.


Daddy would have been angry that we had anything to do with a mortuary but after a  family meeting regarding the feasibility of stealing Daddy’s body from the funeral home resulted in a unanimous, “We are just too tired…” building the coffin was our next best bet.

Phil taught the few of us who had not been forced to build furniture by Daddy, the basics. We spent far more time on sanding the wood smooth than was necessary and we chose Daddies favorite stain; Min Wax Golden Oak, as the stain.

The urn for the ashes problem was solved when the kids found a box, built by my dad as a prototype for God knows what, laying in the shop.


Daddy built his own urn, and his grandchildren found it.  That, he would have approved of.

~ by Step On a Crack on October 8, 2011.

18 Responses to “How to Build a Coffin…”

  1. Like this, especially the pictures!


    • I am glad you liked this one! The next one is kind of sad. it comes and goes. I have a whole series of photos of the building of the coffin. I HIGHLY recommend that everyone build there own. It was a remarkably healing experience. Trish, thank you for reading this…..


  2. I’m amazed. I never knew how wonderful your dad was … he sounds a bit like Hunter. You have an amazing family now.
    You have a brother? Love you … mel


    • They were VERY much alike and liked one another very much. We miss them both Terribly. It made the whole “meet the family’ thing SO easy, I will say that. Phil is the Real Deal and so are Carrie and the kids. Family. Period. I am one lucky Woman.


  3. I am so grateful you are in my life! I just thought i’d add that … and btw, can you take a look at my car … YOU WINKEL chicks !!!! 😉

    Kidding, of course … i don’t drive … i walk and take the EL … and hacks when i feel rich ..

    love you, mel


  4. I will never forget Paul looking at me and saying ‘ Wow so you can Really build furniture’. My response was… ‘Yep, this is No flat pack family you married, I can also weld if you give me the necessary equipment.’ One year and 33 days into marriage my English husband had a bit better understanding of how we tick. This was brought home when at the airport in Chicago. We were questioned about the weight of our bags and the unusal amount of tools and large wooden plank. As soon as they asked I broke down in tears. ( I don’t cry. Another shock for Paul) I said ‘my dad is Dead… those are some of his tools…. and a bit of his coffin lid’. Paul filling in the blanks for the woman checking us in. My hysterical tears got us an upgrade to business class.
    Oh and the bit of coffin lid fit exactly our Ikea flat pack coffee table. No need to cut or plane….just perfect. Serendipities from a crazy life…. thats what you have to find. The serendipities. We do not tell many people the place their tea is sitting was my fathers coffin lid. There are not many people who can see the serendipity in that.


  5. OK, so I alone thought this one was sad… Anyway, clearly you Winkel Women know your way around more than just a wood shop. Amazing story.


    • Believe me, this was one of the saddest things ANY of us have EVER had to do. We have lived in Hell and survived. There are stories that would curl your hair, BUT they are not part of my mothers decline into alcoholic dementia. (I suppose if I wanted to address all the years drinking, they apply, but that is not what I am writing about, only the final outcome.)
      My family had been through about 10 deaths in the year leading up to my fathers. The Sad Sad run started with the suicide of a close family member which was related to alcohol and drug addiction. We NEEDED to come together and Build. It is what my father would have wanted; all of us in his shop working together. We cried more than we laughed and we laughed only when telling stories about Daddy.

      Building my fathers coffin was one of the most Healing things I have ever done. It was our Way, it is obviously not everyones way.

      I KNOW that Daddy could feel our love as we sent him on his way. I KNOW that the sawdust and the stain are something other than what they were, but were actually the stuff of Real Love out of Chaos. Daddy knew that.

      We Go Our Own Way, and that has been more of a blessing than a curse. The getting there was trial by fire, but we were forged and strengthened.

      We are Tight. We may be odd and not like the others, but We are a Family, and we can hold one another and Heal.

      That is Grace.


  6. Maybe it has something to do with the name Debby, but I also found this sad and hard. I suspect there is some of that to be found in this story. My father didn’t get what he wanted at his funeral so for that, I am glad you were able to do as much as possible at providing that for him.


    • This IS HARD AND SAD! You read that SO correctly. This is tragic and I will never get used to Daddy’s absence. None of us will. No one who ever knew him will. I grew up, like many who have been abused, with a dark sense of humor. I really mean it when I say it is what can save you. That Dark Humor HAS saved me in so many moments. I wrote this as it happened. This is not embellished. I did leave out someone; a homeless man my father had taken in. We gave him one of Daddy’s truck the day after he died and told him that, of course, he could continue to live in the store until we needed to sell it. This man had become straightened by my fathers Love. He was NOT the first homeless man to live with us. He was the man who ended up stealing all of my fathers tools and stealing money from my mother. I do not mention this poor man, because his heart broke when Daddy died and he fell apart. Daddy had become his center and he was on his way to becoming whole. We understood this and did NOT press charges. We prayed, each in our own way, that his grief would be healed. He tried to commit suicide some time later. We do not know where he is. If I was still in Iowa, it would be my duty as Bill Winkel’s daughter to find him and hold him. That is how I was brought up. I did not include him here out of respect for him and his privacy, where ever he might be. MY father got what he wanted at his funeral and so did we; we found healing, and togetherness. We are stronger for the hours and hours in the cold shop. We could see our breaths as we built that coffin and we worked hard. THAT was healing. Sitting inside would not have been our way. DOING something constructive, something that Daddy taught us was and is OUR way. That was our Prayer.


  7. I could smell wood dust when I read this! What kind of wood? It doesn’t look like pine.

    Good job. Thank you so much for sharing this part of the story so we can understand your family better. Wow. Your son has a very strong Mama!


    • We all kept bags of the sawdust and I can open the bag and STILL smell that day. It was pine; I think it became something else. Love transforms everything it touches.

      Thank you Heidi. I am realizing that to explain why it is hard to forgive my mother, I must explain a bit about growing up with alcoholics. To explain why it IS important to forgive my mother, I need to explain who my father was. This is tricky, isn’t it? Thank you for your support. I am one LUCKY mother to have the son I do. He is a Blessing. xxx


  8. This is the most touching, heartfelt and best-written post i have seen all year. Thank you for all these beautiful emotions you’ve given me.


    • You, my friend, have made my day! Thank you so very much for your Kind and generous words. You probably know how your words have touched me. Words are sacred to me. I believe they are to you also. When I was in the theatre we would tell one another, “Break a leg!” What does one writer say to another?
      Whatever it might be; I am saying that to you right this moment. Words, Man. Gotta Dig em. Really. I am giddy. Thank you.


  9. I’m enjoying your family’s uniqueness and independent spirit. I like your Dad’s idea about the wolves and the family’s compromise with building a coffin.


    • Thank you Sue! I like how you call my family ‘unique’ and not crazy. It is very kind, as are you! You are in my prayers; I hope all is going well with your friend. See you in the Sauna club! (I figure it extends into the locker room…) : )


  10. […] my father’s coffin was one of the most healing things I have ever […]


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