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Crossing the World

“Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.” – William Penn 1693

Last month I took delivery of my coffin. When I tell people this, the usual reaction is embarrassment or nervous laughter. Are they anxious that preparing for death is inviting it closer? I can’t see it like that.

The decision to give the coffin a place in my home arose almost accidentally. To spare my family worry and expense, I’d made a funeral plan. I wanted a plain wooden box from sustainable sources and I’d found someone who could make it. But it’s a small-scale business and they couldn’t store it for me. Once I’d seen their photos I thought it was a shame to waste the craftsmanship, only for it to be buried or burnt. And I had just the place for it.

Made from Scottish larch with dovetail and ‘dowel-and-biscuit’ joints, it has hemp handles – no metal or plastic fixings. Rectangular rather than the traditional shape, the only hint of its ultimate purpose is the lid – slightly rounded at the head end, a little tapered at the foot. It sits now in my bedroom, draped with a beautiful piece of silk. It’s practical too, holding several spare blankets. I will have a lifetime’s use of my simple, unremarkable box. And when the time comes it will travel with me.

Macabre? I don’t think so. I will die: so will we all. That much is certain. What could be more natural, or more necessary? The world is already too crowded with humans. As I moved the furniture to make room for my coffin I had a sense of peace and quiet pleasure. Some mental and emotional blocks seemed to shift too. I have made space for my death, neither dwelling on it nor averting my eyes from it, and in doing so it feels as though I’ve made more space for living.

I’ve been asked how I feel about waking up every morning to this memento mori. Quite comfortable, actually. Seeing it makes me smile and encourages me to make the most and the best of the day ahead. ‘Live each day as if it was your last’: it’s good counsel, if not to be taken literally. Not abandoning the chores and the difficult phone call, but valuing every moment and each person I encounter. Not deferring being a better, more faithful Quaker until tomorrow, next week, next year. Because each today is all I have. It’s advice that’s no easier to follow than it was before – but at least I have an inescapable daily prompt.

By Jane Pearn, this article first appeared in SESAME, the newsletter of Quakers in SE Scotland’.