A PLACE in mind
By Jennifer Botzojorns
It was still dark when my friend Alex and I pulled onto Route
27, just north of Farmington, Maine, our fly rods and gear
tossed in the back of Alex’s Subaru. The autumnal equinox had
passed a few days prior and the leaves had started to turn, their
colors getting deeper by the day. We were pushing the end of
the fishing season, just a day or two shy of October, and the air
was already infused with the kind of cold that makes you think
about firing up the wood stove for the first time.
When my husband got the call about the heart attack he went
directly to the hospital. His father, Peter, barely able to speak, said,
“Go home.” My husband looked toward his mother. Again, with
raised brows and a slight motion forward, he said a little louder,
“GO HOME.” He shut his eyes and rested back on the pillow.
Peter was not a professional woodsman, but he was a man of
the woods. He fled Germany after World War II, served in the
French Foreign Legion and emigrated to New England to marry
the love of his life. He took his two sons to the woods to play,
collect firewood, track wildlife, and explore the mountains. In
Peter’s house, a Jøtul F 602 provided warmth all winter. In the
1970s, after a ski accident permanently limited his movement,
he purchased a manual wood splitter. For 30 years, with a
side limp and no use of his left arm, he loaded a cart and
methodically moved his stack. One by one he placed logs and
cranked the handle until the wood cracked. On the nights below
zero you could hear his uneven midnight shuffle as he woke to
feed the fire.
At the hospital, my husband and I researched burial options.
In Vermont, before you can cremate a loved one, you need a
preliminary report of death from a physician, a burial transit
permit from a town clerk, and a medical examiner’s cremation
permit. There are also burial laws for interment on your own
property, including minimum distances to boundary lines and
water sources, minimum burial depth, and requirements for
marking the property map.
That night I asked my 21-year-old son to mill wood in case
we needed to build a casket. Was I jinxing fate asking Peter’s
grandson to help prep this wood? Peter’s grandson understood.
That night he sawed about 50 board feet of pine using his
girlfriend’s grandfather’s Woodmizer.
The next day, my husband and mother-in-law brought Peter
home while I picked up my brother-in-law at the airport. With
both sons by his side, Peter opened his eyes a few more times. He
listened to us reminisce about woodpiles and canoes, hawthorns,
and hikes, and moose. His life drifted away. I went home to build
the casket. Peter’s sons stayed with his body. They dressed him in
his favorite green wool trousers, blue shirt, and red suspenders.
In northern Vermont, there is only one place to take a
deceased body yourself. Mt. Pleasant Cemetery and Crematory
rests high above the Connecticut River in St. Johnsbury.
The chapel and back room are built into the side of the
mountain, which provides natural refrigeration for bodies
waiting to be cremated. When I emailed the caretaker about
casket specifications, he replied, “Please keep the bottom free
from any blocking and standoffs – in other words, make it
completely flat. It needs to be rigid and have a cover.”
Using my son’s rough-cut pine, we built the casket six feet
long, 12 inches high, and 24 inches wide, the smoothest parts of
the milled boards faced out. We sanded the sides and top, and
kept all bracing on the inside. On the outside we painted forest
landscapes. Peter’s granddaughter arrived on a late-night flight.
When the car pulled up to the workshop there was a dim light
left on to paint the last few scenes.
The next morning, Peter’s grandchildren and I put the
casket in the back of the pick-up truck and drove to his home.
When we lowered his body, the casket smelled of green wood.
Although Peter was six feet tall, when a person dies all the
muscles relax and the spine expands. We had to shift the body,
stirring up sawdust remnants. Peter would have breathed in
deeply, shut his eyes and smiled. He loved the woods.
Then his love and wife of 56 years bent over, rubbed his
face and kissed him goodbye one last time. We put on the lid.
Everyone who touched Peter loved him.
We moved Peter to our vehicle. No fancy anything. A plain
wooden box. Driving up over curvy back roads, his body facing
the sky. The wood was neither planed nor edged; he could see
through cracks to the canopy of maples and birches spread over
When we arrived, hundred-year-old white pines swayed
outside the small chapel. All together, we wheeled Peter into
the cool room to await cremation. We could hear the breeze
– the music of the northwoods to which Peter was inextricably
linked. To which his ashes would return and where his spirit
Jennifer Botzojorns loves to work with wood and also
enjoys writing from her home in Bolton, Vermont.