How to Consider Your Own Mortality: New Doyenne of Death Podcast Episode

Dec 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Would you face your own mortality by building your own coffin? Dr. Jeffrey Piehler joined The Doyenne of Death® Gail Rubin to discuss facing mortality and funeral planning issues. His essay in The New York Times on making a plain pine box for his eventual cremation (see below) had generated a huge reaction.

This podcast was originally recorded February 12, 2014. Dr. Piehler died peacefully on November 14, 2014, surrounded by his family and friends. Read his obituary here.

Topics in this two-part discussion include:

  • Why he decided to build his own coffin for a funeral followed by cremation.
  • Family reaction – His wife really didn’t like the idea at first and how she and others changed their minds over the course of time.
  • Perspective – “It’s pretty much impossible to feel anger at someone for driving too slowly in front of you in traffic when you’ve just come from sanding your own coffin.”
  • Friendship – How building his own coffin with the help of a woodworking artist grew a friendship with a person very different from himself.
  • Black humor – Laughing in the face of death while making your own coffin.

On the inside lid of his handmade casket is the quote, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” Dr. Jeffrey Piehler’s life and death were featured in a documentary, Patient: A Surgeon’s Journey.

Podcast Episode

Listen to Part One of the podcast through the link below or through the video version on YouTube.

Listen to Part Two of the podcast through the link below or through the video version on YouTube.

Dr. Piehler’s Essay on Mortality

Pine Box Illustration

Illustration by Robert G. Fresson for the New York Times

On February 2, 2014, The New York Times published Dr. Jeffrey Piehler’s essay titled “Ashes to Ashes, but First a Nice Pine Box.” The reaction from readers was overwhelming. Here’s the first part of his essay.

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. — NOT long ago, my wife and I had a good friend over for a glass of wine. We had drunk just enough to feel pleasantly liberated in thought. Or at least that’s how I felt. Probably that’s why it seemed a good moment to bring it up. So, I calmly announced to my wife: “I’m going to build my own coffin. I just thought you should know.”

It didn’t go over well. Her first reaction — silence — quickly turned to blind anger. Then came demands for explanation, then commands to desist. Finally she fell silent again, this time not in disbelief but in punishing disapproval.

I hadn’t anticipated so much resistance. The plan didn’t seem so extreme to me — no more extreme, anyway, than my circumstances. I have incurable Stage 4 prostate cancer, which I learned I had at age 54. I’ve been living with it for 11 years, and in that time I’ve tried every conventional treatment and many trial ones. All in all, I think I have done extraordinarily well: I’ve been able to travel, to photograph, to write. On most days, I walk over four miles. And although I did have to give up my surgical practice, the extra time has let me become much closer to my family and friends.

My family, of course, remembers not just the positives but those dark days of sickness after chemotherapy, the reactions to drugs requiring resuscitation, and the hospitalizations for complications. While I like my edited version better, theirs cannot be dismissed.

What we all agree on, though, is that my journey is coming to an end relatively soon. The remaining treatment options are mostly minor modifications of previous failures. My bones are riddled with metastatic disease, and I’m starting to need pain medications. As we used to say in the medical business, I’m starting to circle the drain.

Yes, but why build your own coffin? When I mention it to others, most are distinctly uncomfortable with what they interpret as my abandonment of the “fight against cancer,” which by their reasoning must be the explanation for my continued survival. I must be giving up. That my motivation is the exact opposite eludes them. In fact, it is a project that I wish I had started much earlier.

The idea came to me at the funeral of an 18-year-old boy. While sitting in the church, I couldn’t help noticing the plushness of the young man’s open mahogany coffin, and knowing the family’s plan to cremate him afterward, I wondered whether there was a kind of contradiction here.

I began to think about this aspect of my own funeral. I, too, plan to be present — though unviewed — at my service, as well as cremated. But I find comfort in simplicity and familiarity and, I suppose, purity. A little investigation showed me that most people are cremated in a cardboard container of some sort. My ecological conscience argued for recycled cardboard, yet that implied that my ashes would spend eternity blended with the powdered remains of ice cream containers, first drafts and pizza boxes. I’m sure one could do worse, but why not opt for a more elemental final mix: me and wonderful old wood.

Making my own coffin was the answer. A plain pine box. My own plain pine box. Creating something of beauty and purpose would be both a celebration of life and an acceptance of my death.

About The Doyenne of Death

The Doyenne of Death podcast artNew episodes of The Doyenne of Death® podcast are released every Thursday. Episodes are available on the podcast playlist on YouTube as well as wherever you get your podcasts. Recent shows focus on Near Death Experiences (NDEs), the physical impacts of grief, and an interview about the book Last Rites: The Evolution of the American Funeral. Listen to Gail Rubin’s introduction to the series and subscribe here.

Gail Rubin is a Certified Thanatologist, a Certified Funeral Celebrant, an award-winning author and speaker, creator of The Newly-Dead Game® and five-time coordinator of the Before I Die New Mexico Festival.  Learn more about Gail Rubin, the podcast, and her work in death education.

A Good Goodbye