In seventeenth and eighteenth-century America, your neighborhood furniture-maker was also your neighborhood casket-maker; buryin' was the duty of the community and the minister, and often, if death was unexpected or the weather overly warm, friends of the deceased would help the cabinetmaker build the casket. This is not ordinarily still true. However, with a traditionalist's appreciation of the cursive script, and with the hope that it would help explain that "cabinetmaker" originally meant "furniture maker", I ordered business cards to read like 18th-century ones: "Makes and Sells all Sorts of Household Furniture in the Newest Fashion at the Most Reasonable Rates; Likewise Funerals Decently Furnished and Goods Appraised."
So I shouldn't have been surprised when our friend John called and asked for my help. He explained that a member of his family had died, had been cremated, and was going to be interred in upstate New York, where the family came from.
"Of course," I said, hoping for an overnight guest or perhaps loaning him our car - neither we, nor our friends, were ever financially prepared for the unexpected. "I have to leave tomorrow," he said.
"Can you build a box tonight, for the ashes?" I gulped and agreed.
"I'll be out in an hour or so," he said.
I put down the phone and scanned the available wood. Cherry? Walnut? Mahogany? What size is the container the ashes come in? Is the box sealed, or hinged to open? Is a name carved in the top? I noticed that I was oddly flustered, and called my wife at work.
"Please bring a bottle of Southern Comfort when you come home," I said. She agreed, sounding puzzled. I realized I had no clue as to how to proceed, so I waited for John. And the Southern Comfort. When John arrived, I put my questions to him. He was open-minded about the wood, uncertain about hardware, and unclear about the carving. I realized that I would have to be in charge of this project, working from a vast pool of ignorance. A box, then. That part was clear.
"Size?" I asked, and he told me. We set to, with John - a little vague, perhaps, but willing - sanding the pieces of walnut I cut and shaped for fitting. My wife arrived, bearing the solace, and began preparing dinner and shushing children. John and I determined that brass handles would be needed for a respectful carrying to the final site, and I scrambled through an ill-assorted group of hardware for appropriate ones. I found a matched pair in desperate need of polishing, and we set them to bubbling in a mixture of ammonia and tinfoil - a tarnish-loosening trick John taught me that bewildering evening.
A surreptitious tap on the shop door interrupted us, and my wife, round-eyed, poked her head in.
"Jake," she said, "there's a plastic box of - something - on the table next to the couch. Is it... ?"
John said "Yup."
"I'm hiding it," she said, glaring. "The children will want to investigate."
We ate dinner that evening in that parental fugue state that hovers between a determination to be honest and a total blank as to how to explain exactly what - and, in this case, um, where. John and I stayed up late, sipping and slowly adding layers of finish. We didn't talk much, but there was comfort and purpose in the silence, and the shop dust motes floated around our efforts with a peace that matched ours. I watched the walnut become richer and deeper with a little sadness that it would disappear forever, and a lot of pride that such a human need could still be met by friends rather than companies.
John left early the next morning, suitably shaved and primped, only a little shaky on his pins. He carried the gently curved, richly grained box under his arm, carefully balancing our mortality by the newly polished brass handles.