It had been a perfectly enjoyable lunch until Walter brought up funeral plans.
We were in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Delaware River, swollen and swift-moving owing to recent rains. Perhaps it was the water’s mighty surge and swirling pools that put Walter, a dear, old college friend, in a pensive frame of mind.
“Too pricey,” Walter said philosophically. “Do it yourself.”
Walter did not seem glum, it now was clear, anything but. A final DIY send-off? Walter seemed positively eager.
My wife, Wink, and I meet Walter and his wife, Kathy, twice a year at an inn on the Delaware. They drive from outside Philadelphia. We trek over from Long Island. The get-togethers are grand.
Settled at a table overlooking the river, we talk for hours about family and college days in the Midwest — chili dogs at the little fast-food shack a few miles from campus, this or that crusty professor, mutual friends, some still around, others not.
Once, we were laughing so resoundingly that a very elderly lady — well beyond even our years — asked us to pipe down from a nearby table. “Yes’m,” we apologized, barely suppressing a new round of giggles.
Walter is as close to a renaissance man as I know. He reads widely — everything from architecture to theology — and keeps pace with pop culture and current events. He knows about movies, television, hit parade tunes. Depending on the mood, he may recite scripture or a line from "Saturday Night Live."
But at this moment, Walter was focused on matters of eternity and associated arrangements.
He had become aware, Walter said, of the trend in home funerals and biodegradable coffins and was ready to get aboard. Funerals can be pricey and whether you opt for burial or cremation, what difference does it make how you are packaged?
“None,” Walter concluded, as a server delivered his smoked salmon BLT. “None, whatsoever.” Bundle us in Bubble Wrap, or whatever, we’re outta’ here. That was the idea.
Walter said he had learned that a serviceable coffin of heavyweight cardboard was available at some of the big suburban mega-marts. Computer research shows more options — a woven fiber coffin, for instance, or box of unfinished pine — likewise are on the market.
One clever Maine woodworker offers a hinged box with removable shelves that serves first as a bookcase and then a coffin when reading days are done. For the truly industrious, there are construction plans and coffin building kits.
“Though the wood and other materials are inexpensive (well under $200) ,” a North Carolina supplier notes, “the satisfaction of your hands-on contribution to the undertaking of a loved one’s funeral — or your own — is of great value.”
Exactly Walter’s point.
Simplicity is everything — and a bargain.
Walter said that when the time comes (nothing imminent, let’s hope), he was considering a knotty pine crate or perhaps something in reinforced cardboard. Any memorial the family planned would be held at home. Proceedings necessarily would be brief, but that was good, too. No need to go on and on.
Along those lines, I asked the obvious question about, well, you know, spoilage.
“Dry ice!” Walter exclaimed. “Of course.”
Then it would be off to the crematorium. “You could use a pickup truck or the family van,” Walter said. No need for a hearse, or Uber, for that matter.
So-called “green” funerals — those without polished coffins, concrete vaults or embalming fluid — are unquestionably hip and cool, Walter said. Why not be among the in-crowd when cashing out?
Attention must be paid to details. Certain states — New York is one — require participation of a licensed funeral director for purposes of paperwork and disposition of the body.
In some places, it is fine to bury remains on your property. Not so everywhere. Be certain to consult local authorities. Alerting neighbors also might be prudent before that big dig by the back fence.
Back at the lunch table, conversation, at last, turned to lighter subjects — grandchildren, recipes, TV mysteries — and soon our riverside interlude was over. The four of us walked to the parking lot and hugged. “See you in October,” we said. “Safe trip.”
Our friends approached their car, a sort of small-fry sport utility vehicle. Walter is a lanky individual — better than 6 feet — and reflecting on his funeral plans and choice of final conveyance (“the family van”) I could not help but wonder: Even with the seats down, will Walter fit?