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Round-Trip to Deadsville: A Year in the Funeral Underground

Round-Trip to Deadsville: A Year in the Funeral Underground

by Tim Matson, Matson, Nader Khalili

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Our narrator, Tim Matson, assaulted by middle-aged existential doubt and morbid preoccupations, sets out to confront the demons of death and the denizens of the funeral trade. His odyssey begins when he stares down a photograph of Ginseng Willard, a flinty old Vermonter who built his own coffin from a piano case, then used it as a bed for the rest of his natural


Our narrator, Tim Matson, assaulted by middle-aged existential doubt and morbid preoccupations, sets out to confront the demons of death and the denizens of the funeral trade. His odyssey begins when he stares down a photograph of Ginseng Willard, a flinty old Vermonter who built his own coffin from a piano case, then used it as a bed for the rest of his natural days. Matson ups the ante by deciding to build his own coffin. Like any self-respecting American literary hero, he heads out on the road to learn how to go about it. Along the way he meets an unforgettable cabal of characters who populate the funeral underground--among them the Undertaker and the Crusader, the Anatomist and the Astrologer, the Organist and the Gravedigger--and learns why the living always get the last word, and why when sprinkling ashes it is best to use a wide-mouth urn.

In Round-Trip to Deadsville, the author taps death on the shoulder and asks to bum a ride. Sometimes you'll feel as if Buster Keaton had slipped through a trap door into a funeral parlor in backcountry Vermont. Other times you'll be at the wheel, with Hitchcock and Sartre riding shotgun. Round-Trip to Deadsville offers thrills, chills, and laughter, but also a face-to-face encounter with some of life's Big Questions.

Editorial Reviews

Matson, a pond designer and author of six books, sets out to confront the demons of death and the denizens of the funeral trade. Deciding to build his own coffin, he heads out on the road to learn how to go about it. Along the way he meets an unforgettable cabal of characters who populate the funeral underground, and learns why the living always get the last word. The book is not indexed. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

Chelsea Green Publishing
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

THE COFFIN MAKER lives on a steep gravel road where the sun to struggles to clear the hills for an hour or two before disappearing again. It's a cold valley with patches of snow that linger into May, the last stop on a nameless road. A hand-lettered sign at the corner says Dead End. I turn into the driveway, a narrow lane flanked by tall pines, with no room to turn around. One bend after another winds through the trees, and I imagine the Coffin Maker cutting his lumber here under a full moon, a reclusive woodsman hiding away in a forest sprouting coffins. The road plunges deeper into the woods and the trapdoor in my chest opens wide. There's no turning around.

    Suddenly the trees open up like a parting curtain to reveal a clearing. There's a house and a vegetable garden and a garage with a basketball hoop over the door. A kid on a ladder is hanging screens on the windows. A black Lab barks at my tires. The air is sweet with apple blossoms. Did I miss a turn?

    I get out of the car and give the dog a scratch. A screen door slams. A man in faded jeans and a Trophy Husband T-shirt walks down the flagstone steps and introduces himself. He clenches a steaming cup of coffee in a shaky hand. There are heavy bags under his eyes, and he squints against the sun. We shake hands, and then he leads me toward his workshop in a closed bay of the gray clapboard garage.

    I follow the Coffin Maker through the door, and there it is in the middle of the room resting on two sawhorses, bathed in the soft light of an overhead reflector lamp. The wood has a creamy patina; ripples of grain eddy across the boards. Along each side, three brass handles gleam. Dovetail joints lock the ends together like fingers joined in prayer. The pine box pulls me forward and I reach out and touch the lid. The wood has been sanded and polished to a smooth, waxy finish, and under my hand it feels warm, alive. I run my hand back and forth over the surface.

    "It's beautiful," I hear myself say. The Coffin Maker smiles. He tells me how his customers appreciate the simplicity of a traditional design. The coffin is Shaker inspired, put together without nails, using pegs and dovetails, and for Orthodox Jewish customers the brass handles can be omitted, making the coffin one hundred percent kosher. He adds that people also appreciate the seven hundred dollar price, much less than you're likely to find in funeral home showrooms.

    "People pay too much for coffins," he says. "They don't plan ahead." He explains that when a family member dies few relatives are in the mood for bargain hunting, and they're easy prey for greedy undertakers. The Coffin Maker commends me for my foresight, suggesting that I could take one of his coffins home today and save the delivery charge.

    "I don't want to buy a coffin," I tell him. "I want to learn how to build one."

    The Coffin Maker squints, and I imagine his thoughts.

    "I'm not going into the coffin business," I reassure him. "I want to build it for myself. I'd like to watch you put one together, learn the basics. I don't want the bottom falling out." I leave out the part about hoping some coffin carpentry will cure my death fear. I don't want him calling the cops.

    He puts down the cup. "Give me a hand moving this coffin and you can do more than watch. You can help."

    We lift the coffin off the sawhorses and set it down gently on a carpet along the back wall. The sawhorses are also padded with carpeting, a nice touch considering the coffin's destination. I think about old Ginseng and his recycled dance-hall-piano coffin, picturing a lid scarred with cigarette burns and beer-bottle rings. The Coffin Maker reaches up and eases out four pine boards from an overhead rack and I help him lay them out on the sawhorses. He takes another swig of coffee. The bags under his eyes are shrinking and he's moving faster. He picks up a Skilsaw and cuts two of the boards for the sides and then lops off a couple of end pieces. He shows me a handmade jig he's put together to cut the dovetails.

    "Kinda looks like a guillotine, doesn't it?" he says, swigging more coffee. By now the puffy wrinkles are gone and he looks ten years younger. This would make a dynamite Folger's commercial.

    "Time to offer it up," he whispers. He cuts the dovetails and taps the corners together. "Please, God, I hope it fits." On cue the dovetails lock tight. Then he pulls the joints apart, sands down the pins and tails and hands me a jar of Titebond glue and a toothbrush. "You can help glue the joints."

    I carefully spread the glue and then he taps the corners together, using bar clamps to pull them tight. With glue dripping out of the dovetails and bright orange clamps glowing under the reflector lamp, the coffin looks like a patient prepped for surgery. No wonder carpenters are called wood butchers. The Coffin Maker rips two boards for the lid and splices them together using glue, battens, and hardwood pegs. He pounds the square pegs into the round holes drilled in the battens, and they fit snugly. Whoever said you can't fit a square peg in a round hole never built a coffin.

    The glue will take time to set, and he asks if I'll give him a lift up the road to get his motorcycle. He left it at a friend's last night.

    "Men's group. We had a few beers and I didn't want to kill myself riding home."

    We drive a few miles up a mountain road to his friend's, who is presumably nursing a hangover downtown at work. I always wondered what those men's groups were about. The motorcycle is waiting in the garage. A '67 Triumph Bonneville, an English classic. I feel a rush of déjá vu. I rode a Triumph in college, a '66 Daytona 500. I can feel the old ghosts stirring.

    The Coffin Maker straddles the bike, pulls the choke, and jumps on the kick starter. After a couple of kicks the machine roars to life. The pipes slap out that sharp staccato beat the Japanese can't touch, and suddenly it's the Sixties again and I'm back in Florida racing through the orange groves with a Confederate blonde breathing down the back of my neck, arms tight around my waist. Hank Ballard and The Midnighters are playing at the beach, and the world is all fresh shrimp and Busch Bavarian and skinny-dipping in the phosphorescent midnight surf.

    The Coffin Maker takes off and I tail him back to the shop, and it's like watching myself leaning into the curves, downshifting, burning up the road to my grave. The glue is still tacky, so the Coffin Maker shows me some of his tools, classics like the Bonneville. A small English handsaw that fits his grip perfectly. A Sandvik cabinet scraper with a freshly sharpened blade to smooth down the pine after he's had the boards mechanically sanded. Planes and custom-made jigs, power tools and hand tools scavenged cross-country over the past quarter-century.

    "What I like most about building coffins is working with these tools," he says. "They're one of a kind, a combination of utility and beauty. For me that's the essence of the creative process. Usefulness and beauty."

    I ask him about the coffins. Doesn't he find them a touch morbid? If it's the tools he enjoys, why this particular line of work? Why not Windsor chairs? He explains that building coffins is just a weekend gig, something he got into by chance. Weekdays he works at a multinational industrial firm, translating operating manuals into foreign languages. He moved to New Hampshire in the hippie days, catapulted from college to backwoods carpentry. One day a friend asked for help building a box. A plain pine box. How could he refuse? After all, this was the back-to-the-land movement. Why buy what you could make yourself?

    "Truth is, I'd never heard of home burial," the Coffin Maker recalls. "I'd never even seen a dead body." He did some research, built the coffin, tied it to the top of his VW bug, and drove to Albany, New York. It was New Year's Day and his friend's mother was dead. The family invited him to stay for the ceremony, where her children handled everything, right down to anointing the body with scented oils. They all sat around, told stories, and sang. The next day she was cremated. "It was very moving," he recalls. I ask if he had any regrets at seeing his work go up in smoke. He shakes his head. "Buried or burned, it's a one-way trip."

    Eventually the Coffin Maker put on a coat and tie, but over the years that encounter with death grew into a part-time profession, and he now turns out half a dozen coffins annually, polishing his skills, and planning to expand the business when he retires.

    "It doesn't spook you?"

    He admits that when he began building the coffins, his terror at the thought of death was "a big thing." But word spread, and people began asking for his elegant, low-budget boxes. He decided to take on the Reaper.

    "I remember picking up a book by Ray Moody, a study of people who'd had near-death experiences. They all shared memories of a journey toward some kind of light, and a feeling of fearlessness. Our tendency is to fear the unknown, but what I found in my work and reading helped me overcome my fear."

    The Coffin Maker checks the dovetails and they're dry. He cuts several lengths of narrow ledgers to fit the bottom of the coffin. "This is the critical part," he says. "This'll keep you from falling out." He shows me how to peg the ledgers around the inside of the coffin floor, then cuts a slab of birch plywood, drops it in, and glues and pegs it down. He packs a handful of hardwood pegs in a plastic baggie and tapes it inside, drops the lid, and tells me that when the time comes, the coffin can be closed with pegs or screws, kosher or non. "I'll put on the finish and the handles tonight," he concludes, dusting off the lid. When I ask him what he uses for a stain, he declines to reveal the formula for his secret blend of sealer and stain, urethane and polish. "Finishing is half the woodworking project. Woodworkers don't give away their finish."

    No problem. The woodworking here is way beyond me. I'd be happy to have a box with a bottom that won't drop out. But it does seem a shame that the Coffin Maker's product is so short-lived. I wonder if any of his coffins have found a place this side of the grave, like Ginseng's coffin bed. Occasionally you read about people who buy coffins ahead of time and use them for furniture. A friend of mine knew a college professor who made a glass coffin the centerpiece in his living room, intending to be buried in it like Sleeping Beauty.

    The Coffin Maker shakes his head. "I've heard about people using them as wine racks, and I think one of mine is being used as a blanket chest, but most of them don't leave here until there's a death."

    "It doesn't bother you that all your craftsmanship is lost?"

    "It serves a purpose and it's attractive, that's the point. I usually hear from the family after a service. People call up to thank me. When I hear someone say, Oh, it was beautiful, I know I'm doing the right thing."

    The Coffin Maker puts away the bar clamps and the tools. "I like working out here at night," he says, and I don't doubt it. He looks far younger than the old man I saw when I arrived. By nightfall, who knows? "I play my music, refine the process; it's very satisfying." He stops for a moment, as if he were hearing another voice. "My wife thinks it's weird." A shadow passes through the room. "She doesn't like it. She thinks it embarrasses the kids." He picks up the Titebond glue and screws on the cap. What he tells me next would have been tragic anywhere, but in a coffin shop it's stunning. He says that a couple of years ago his oldest son committed suicide. First year of college, away from home, alcohol and depression. He built his son's coffin. He says it helped begin the healing process.

    I try to imagine his wife's healing process, watching him build coffins in the garage. The hardest shot the Reaper can dish out, and her husband's in the shop playing undertaker. Weird indeed. Then again, who knows? Maybe the coffins saved them. If the work out here heals the Coffin Maker, if building coffins adds up to comprehending death, if he finds the strength to hold the family together, there might be something to this.

    I glance at the coffin lying on the sawhorses awaiting a finish coat, brass handles, and a customer. It's tempting to buy the thing on the spot. Wouldn't it be great to shortcut the healing process for seven hundred bucks? Not a bad deal for peace of mind. But after hearing the Coffin Maker's story, I know shortcuts won't do. Might as well go down to K-Mart and buy a steamer trunk for fifty bucks and call it enlightenment. I don't think Ginseng would be impressed.

    On the way home I think about the Coffin Maker's tragedy. He starts out building coffins for a few friends and winds up putting one together for his son. Is coffin building a way to come to terms with death, or is it asking for trouble? I wonder what the Coffin Maker's son thought of his father's workshop sideline? Did this have any effect on his depression? And what goes through the Coffin Maker's head at night? How does someone survive a child's suicide? All I know is that I've met a brave man and I feel ashamed. It makes my troubles seem very small. I'm tempted to wrap up the whole adventure right now. Slap a pine box together and be done. And then it hits me. I know how to build a coffin that won't fall apart, but I have no idea where the damn thing's going to wind up.

Excerpted from ROUND-TRIP TO DEADSVILLE by TIM MATSON. Copyright © 2000 by Tim Matson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Tim Matson is an award winning writer, photographer, and author of the best selling Earth Ponds series of books and videos. He is a veteran of the U.S. Army, and worked as an editor at a major publishing house in New York before moving to Vermont in the early Seventies. Mountain Brew, his first book, was one of the first to pioneer the craft beer movement, and his collection of dance photographs of the Pilobolus Dance Theatre, published by Random House, received two awards from the American Institute for Graphic Arts. Other books include Country Planet, and Round Trip to Deadsville.

His fascination with ponds began not long after moving to Vermont and taking charge of an old farm with a leaky fish pond in need of restoration. Later he bought fifty acres of forestland to start a tree farm, and taught himself how to build both a house and a pond. His book about that design and excavation project, Earth Ponds, triggered an enthusiastic response, and the pond series was born. His series of pond building books and videos have sold over 100,000 copies, and his consulting service offers design and restoration services, and seminars, across the country.

"Pond building is a rural art, and you have to learn it in the field." Matson says. "That's what makes these books unique." The newest book, Landscaping Earth Ponds, features more than sixty of the author's color photographs, in addition to drawings and color plant photos.

Matson is the father of two teenage girls, and lives in Strafford, Vermont. Visit his website at www.earthponds.com

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