During 2017, we’ve seen news reports of coffin building clubs in New Zealand and of family and friends building a casket for a contractor who died unexpectedly. But Dr. Jeffrey Piehler was ahead of this trend back in 2014.
Dr. Piehler, a surgeon diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer, built his own casket for his eventual cremation and wrote an impactful essay about it in The New York Times. The process of hand-building his casket with a woodworker friend revealed important lessons about life, love and death.
He eloquently expressed his evolving views in Patient, A Surgeon’s Journey, a moving 72-minute documentary now available on DVD, video on demand and for public screenings.
Piehler went into medicine partly to please his father, a pediatrician. He endured rigorous medical training and “barbaric hours” to become a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic. He operated on hearts and lungs as a thoracic surgeon, at one point handling over 1,000 cases a year. He moved to Kansas City with the hopes of slowing his pace of work.
When a prostate exam and follow-up tests revealed cancer, he had surgery and radiation treatment, yet he was still driven and work-obsessed. His cancer was treatable, but not curable.
“To be told you’re incurable, that takes some getting used to,” said Piehler. Becoming a cancer patient changes your perspective. “You see wisdom, you see a complete abandonment of trivia.”
When chemotherapy made his fingers numb, he finally accepted his life had changed and he retired from medicine. Piehler focused on finding joy and meaning in the time he had left – in art, photography, travel, and his family.
“It seems that when we’re born, we’re all given a knapsack that holds everything we need to be purposeful, joyful, happy – the ability to look at the world with wonder,” said Piehler. “That knapsack contains things like gratitude, kindness, and the ability to love people and empathize, the reluctance to judge people.”
“And then as we go through life, we pick up this other horrible stuff…. envy, materialism, judgmentalism, anger. And all those things just weight down the good stuff we were given….”
“It’s possible to empty the sack of all the bad things and get back to what we were given originally. And the world looks totally different when you do that.”
After it became apparent treatments weren’t working, he spoke to medical students, bringing his perspective as a cancer patient. He talked about communicating with patients as an empathetic physician, especially when delivering news about incurable disease and mortality.
“Isn’t compassion the first obligation of a physician? All of this involves people. Just prolonging life for the sake of prolonging life is not what we owe our fellow human beings. We owe them a compassionate investigation of what their wishes are, and what is a compassionate use of the rest of their lives.”
Piehler got the idea to build his own casket attending a funeral that featured a very ornate mahogany unit. He decided he’d be happy with something simple and plain. He planned to have his body and casket present at his funeral, then cremated.
His woodworking artist friend Peter Warren took on the project with him after suggesting Piehler discuss it with his wife Jean. She was appalled.
Piehler said others perceived it as, “Wow, what a morose thing to do, it must mean you’ve given up the fight against cancer.” He perceived it as an opportunity to ground himself about dying, and putting it in perspective.
The casket was constructed of reclaimed pine lumber. On the inside of the lid was the phrase, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
“The coffin is a reminder to me of what awaits all of us,” he said. “And it’s not a morose message. It’s a fact. And how are you going use that fact? I hope in a positive way. If you’ve just come from sanding your coffin, the trivia of everyday life really melts away.”
“No one wants to talk about dying, but everyone wants to talk about dying,” said Piehler. “Opening oneself to discussions of death … is fundamentally key to living more fully, and that is a conversation that people want to have.”
Jeffrey Piehler died on November 14, 2014, at home surrounded by family and friends.
Funeral homes could hold screenings of Patient, A Surgeon’s Journey as a thought- and conversation-provoking community outreach event. More information is available at www.PatientTheMovie.com. Read his New York Times essay and hear Jeffrey Piehler’s interview on A Good Goodbye Radio at http://agoodgoodbye.com/a-good-goodbye-radio/dr-jeffrey-piehler-on-building-your-own-coffin/ FBA.
Gail Rubin, CT – author, speaker, journalist and death educator – connects with baby boomers using humor, funny films and a light touch on serious subjects. A Certified Thanatologist, her seminars on clearing clutter and organizing for end-of-life issues always get high marks! Download a free 50-point Executors Checklist from her website, www.AGoodGoodbye.com.