A number of readers have told me they were moved by the story of Ed McKenna. Ed -- or "Eddie" as his family and friends know him -- is the eighty-seven-year-old retired meatpacker from rural Salix, Iowa, who buys a plain, pine coffin from woodworker Loren Schieuer in chapter seven of Grave Matters. Ed buys Loren's no-frills coffin for his eventual funeral, but, as he told me in couple of phone conversations and later during my visit to his farm, ends up having to use it to bury his wife, Evelyn.
Eddie liked the idea of the basic wood casket, which squared with the philosophy of simplicity by which he led his life. So, a couple of months after Evelyn's death, he returns to Schieuer Woodworks (www.schiwoodworks.com) to buy another plain, pine box, for just himself this time.
Three weeks ago today, on December 29, Eddie McKenna put that coffin to its final use. Surrounded by his family, he died of lung cancer and, per arrangements he'd settled long ago, was buried in Loren's second wood casket next to Evelyn, that very same day.
The family-only funeral Mass that was held for Eddie just hours after his death and his subsequent burial in the church cemetery is a fitting tribute to this hardworking, thoughtful Irishman. In the late Depression, he farmed his hundred-plus acres and took a part-time job at the Swift meatpacking plant in Sioux City to support a family that would eventually include 10 children. For a time, Eddie farmed by day and by night worked the late shift at Swift, earning, he told me, 70 cents an hour, $28 a week. "We didn't have a whole lot coming up," he said simply, "but we never went hungry, either. And our kids all turned out well."
In part, it was the hardscabble farm existence and no-nonsense mindset of the post-Depression era that informed Eddie's view of life -- and just how to depart to the afterlife. "In those days you took life as it was. You stood on your own two feet and did the best you could," he said. Death, as unwelcome as it is, was "a part of life, another step down the road, and you just accepted it and moved on." For Eddie, his grandmother's death, home funeral, and simple burial in a wooden coffin, all of which he witnessed as a kid in 1925, was representative of that ideal and would influence the plans he'd eventually settle on for his own passing.
In our conversations, Eddie talked of how he was moved to see his family rally around Evelyn in her long decline. His girls, he told me, were particularly helpful. "They took real good care of their mother for that whole length of time," he said, "and I wouldn't trade that for all the money you could have piled up in this house." Not two years later, the McKennas, with the same love they showed Evelyn, would do the same for their father.
To the McKennas, I offer my condolences on your loss. To Eddie: I thank you for the gift of your story. May you rest in peace.