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Friday, January 12, 2007

Ed McKenna: 1918 - 2006

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 ( 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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark for the kind salute to Eddie. It is greatly appreciated by his entire family.....jane

Anonymous said...

Mark. I'm the youngest of Eddie's 10 children. The honor and kind words you have shown my parents will stay with me forever. We were raised to not be afraid of death, we were taught that death was simply the next step. I am very sad that they are gone, but am so happy they are together again. Your book and comments are such a comfort. Thank you so much......judy

Anonymous said...

Mark. Eddie would have really enjoyed your book had he been able to read it. The attention his burial has created might have overwhelmed him a little, but the enlightenment it has generated would have pleased him. The most frequent comment I have heard is, "I didn't know you could do that". Thanks...Joan

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mark for bringing my Grandpa to light after he has gone. He is great man with honesty and kindness many will never be blessed with. This man and his wife; my grandmother raised me for a couple of years. Just as their youngest left home and retirment was a reality, they took care of me. No questions asked and many teachings taught.I am thankful for being blessed with such a great man and family, he will forever be my hero. Thank you for letting others get a small glimpse of being humble and simple. We all have a lot to learn from Eddie and others like him. Tammy

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the touching way our parent's story was portrayed at such a fresh time of loss for us. As we go forward in a time of missing our parents, we all feel enriched during the time they were with us, as well as the people they met during their life journey. Thank you so much ...Jean Anne

Anonymous said...

Mark. It's me again, the niece that wrote you about two weeks ago and told you about Eddie. I wanted to thatnk you for all the kind words and for telling my grandpa's story of simplicity. He is the finest man a person will ever know and we all miss him and Evelyn dearly. He talked about how they grew up not having much, but having eachother was always enough. It was sad to see him go but I know he is with Evelyn now and will be watching over all of us. Thank you for everything, you will always hold a special place in the hearts of all the McKenna's.....Kimi

Anonymous said...


Another McKenna here...I'm Kathy...Ed and Evelyn's third child (of 10).

I have been the designated person to send thank you notes after both of our parents funerals. The sentiment most often expressed on the cards we have received about my Dad was that he was a wonderful man...and that he did so much good in our community.

My parents taught us (by example)how to believe in God, to tell the truth (this was a biggie in our family!)

We had a good childhood on the farm. We did our chores then had the freedom to run and play and explore to our hearts delight.

It has been an honor to be Eddie and Evelyn's daughter. When life is over and done...what else is important except the people in your life?

Love your book!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this book. Joan has shown a lot of us what you wrote, and opened a lot of eyes to an alternative process. I will be ordering this for my sisters and I as we contemplate our mother's final days.
Thanks so much

Anonymous said...

Really nice to hear from so many of the McKennas! I'm pleased that YOU'RE pleased with the book. I wrote it in part to show that Eddie's choices were possible for others, but also to show Eddie -- and Evelyn -- as the honorable people they were. And, as I write in this blog, they have touched --and, I hope, will continue to touch -- readers. It's one of the many, wonderful gifts they've left us. All my best wishes, Mark

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