James' coffin

A Bed for James 

By Philip Merchant

Building things is one of the central aspects of who I am. I have built a wide variety of things from an oak baptismal font for a church to a tail wing for an airplane. But the most profoundly important has been a coffin for my son. 

For most of our lives my wife and I have been making things. Most of what surrounds us we have created with wool, wood, tile, cotton, glass, metal, leather and love.

I was helping build a coffin when by strange coincidence, we learned that our eldest son James had been hit and killed by a car on a dark rainy road in Quebec. At 2 am the police knocked at the door and our lives changed forever. 

I knew that building James’ final bed would be the right thing for me to do. A healing thing. At a time of such pain, to me, working wood with my hands for my son was the first step toward survival. 

I have never felt such a clarity of focus and purpose. Dovetail corners were laid out and cut with a saw, chisel and mallet. In a cascade of love I focused on what he would like and at times felt his presence guiding the process. James’ brothers, William and Andrew, helped.

We live in a world where paying other people to do things for us is standard and consequently I think we miss out on some life’s most important experiences. Working with my hands gave me time to think, to love, and to search for meaning. 

We surrounded the coffin with an old worn rope. It became reminiscent of a lifeboat —    as much to carry us into the future as to carry him. Inside, we placed a beaver skin, a little birch bark canoe, his favourite Ruffed Grouse pillow, a horse medallion won by my father long ago, and bundles of oats. A beautiful quilt in the colours of the natural world wraps him forever in his mother’s love. Her hands also guided by her heart on those sad, final days.  

“Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose, won’t you let me go down in my dreams? And rock-a-bye sweet baby James.” James Taylor

We put squares of sand paper in the pamphlets at his funeral for friends to sand the wood. This became part of the process. In the church, the saddle on the coffin and oat bundles instead of flowers spoke of him as he would have wanted. James said he never met a horse he didn’t like and learn something from.   

For weeks we were delivered meals and showered with support by beloved friends. Many people sharing grief also share the load. Never is a community more important than at a time like this. 

Lessons? There are many and they continue to be learned long after those terrible first days. Lives have meaning and their significance continues to be felt and create positive change after their physical presence is gone. 

My range of emotions went from shock to anger to sadness. Of course the sadness lingers and will be always part of me. But I know that the last thing he would have wanted was for us to suffer forever. 

The love we share now in our family is more intense, and more appreciated. In a way, it is a gift from him. Through his short life he loved us and he knew that we loved him and that, in the end, is all that matters. It is this love that will support us and set a trajectory for the future.