Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
After Kimberly and I were engaged my sister Marybeth pulled Kim aside and told her, “If you ever have a daughter, the sun will rise and set on her.” I denied this with great gusto, but in my heart I knew she was right. I wasn’t even married and I knew what I’d say to boys when they showed up to court her, “I have a gun and shovel, I doubt anyone will miss you.” Granted I’ve toned down a bit over the years…
We spent our honeymoon in the mountains of Vermont. The trees were changing color for early fall, it was postcard serene. It was a beautiful small town, a wonderful inn, we had a great time. We’re simple people, small town kids, and it was a warm wonderful getaway. The trip felt like going home for Christmas during college; that cozy familiar feeling of home, with an air of newness.
One of the stores in town was a doll-house shop. I know what you’re thinking, a doll house shop? Sure enough, a business entirely dedicated to the building of custom dollhouses. Life-like miniature houses with tiny furniture, carpet, even electric lights. The gentleman that owned the place was working on an exact replica of this woman’s estate to give to her granddaughter. There were houses of all shapes and sizes, alongside all the tools and supplies to build them. Kim saw the gleam in my eye, I was going to build one of these someday. I had modest carpentry skills, I’d built a small light-up church for the top of our wedding cake… but had no real tools at this point in life. However, I was set on building any daughter a dollhouse like this, not buying… building, one with all the works, real lights, carpet, tiny furniture, the whole deal. Kim didn’t blink, she’s always supported my odd endeavors.
A few years later we bought our first house. It was an 100 year old craftsman 2 1/2 story with quartersawn oak floors and trim. It was in rough shape though, and we gutted it down to the studs. I saved the woodwork though, carefully cataloging it as we took it down and stored it in the basement. We replaced the entire interior, except the trim, in a few months. It was my first attempt as a general contractor, and was also how I began to assemble “the shop.” The second floor trim of the house was a total loss, but we wanted it to look like everything else, so I build that trim from scratch in the basement. That required tools. Over the year I built and refinished all the trim in the house. I honed my skills. I did ok.
Before/after remodeling our first house
Kim's Hope Chest
Time passed and Aden was born. For a while our dream of a big family was put on hold, but eventually we decided to have more children… and hopefully one day a daughter. The dollhouse was still in my mind, but other projects popped into my head as well. A trunk, for our sons. Toys. Every daughter needs a Jewelry Box. A hope chest. Kim didn’t have a Hope Chest, and that seemed like a good start… so I built her one for Christmas 10 years ago, complete with dovetailed sides, all out of good aromatic cedar. Another project to fine-tune my skills, I believed I’d build another one of these. One for a little girl. One with secret compartments for a diary, or jewelry. The daydreams became bigger too, like what would I build for wedding gifts… a bedroom set? A dining room table? I never seem to dream small. Kim laughs that I never dream small.
Once Ethan was born I began to push those dreams into the distant future, they began to fade. Kim and I had conceived four boys, the chance for a girl seemed less and less likely. Instead of building them for a daughter, I began to think that perhaps it would be granddaughters who’d get a dollhouse, jewelry box, etc. The hope of walking my little girl down the aisle began to fade…
But that changed on August 12th, 2011. For twenty minutes my mind was swimming. All of our dreams were coming true. We’d just bought a new house, had great neighbors, a good new school for Aden, and now we were having a girl! Everything I’d dreamt, thought, and hoped for with a daughter came rushing back. All of the things we’d get to do with her, all of the things I’d build for her. It was coming true!
And it all came crashing down. Hard.
I can still hear Kimberly’s cry of horrible disbelief. The anguish in her voice, and the waves of confusion, fear, and almost palatable nausea that swept through the room. I do not know how we’d have gotten through it without Dr. VandenBosch. She was kind, compassionate, and clearly cared about our well-being and the well-being of Alexandria. She broke the news as well as is possible under those circumstances. No doctor could have done better then her, we were very blessed to have her. It hit us harder than anything prior. We were having a girl, and she wasn’t going to stay.
The future, so often in doubt, became clear very quickly. No dollhouse. No jewelry box. I wouldn’t get to walk her down the aisle, but instead I would carry her to the grave. I had the skill-set though, I could make her something to protect her and sleep in for all time. I’d make something worthy of her, I’d honor her by building her casket.
If you’re out there researching building a casket for a child on google or yahoo you’re going to be sorely disappointed. I found plenty of sites that were willing to sell caskets, but extremely few that outlined how to build one or have designs. I had an idea in my mind of what I wanted, but found nothing close to what I wanted. Perhaps I was looking for something too specific… there are concepts I had about the casket, some were simple woodworking ideas, others were casket specific. I wanted that all in one place. Something to help me think it through. Maybe Google just… doesn’t have them indexed properly. Maybe there aren’t that many like me… I don’t know. I can’t be the first.
I won’t be the last.
I started out looking for a good wood supplier. Most of the companies in Grand Rapids that used to supply wood have gone under. I was able to find one that had what I was looking for, good Cherry stock, great woodgrain, it was perfect. I didn’t have a complete plan for the casket yet, just an idea in my head. I returned a few days later with a list of stock that I needed. During conversations I avoided explaining the project, just that it was small, the sizing, etc. Eventually while assembling the order the owner outright asked me what I was building. I couldn’t avoid it any longer and told him, “A casket.” He could tell by the look on my face, the requirements for wood quality it was important. “This is for someone you really care about.” “Yes.” He figured out by size requirements what that meant. He offered to give me the wood for free. I thanked him for the offer, but said no. I didn’t voice it, but I wasn’t going to take charity on this project. I would pay for this with my own money, earned through my hard work, and build it with my own hands.
So building began…. Gabriel often came into the shop. By the time she was to arrive he knew what a casket was. “What’s a casket?” “Well, it’s what your body is laid to rest in after you die.” “Why is Baby Alex going to die?” “She’s very sick, but not sick in a way you can get sick.” We had that conversation a dozen times. It helped him process it, come to grips with the concepts. Vogt boys need to hear the same thing over and over. Sometimes he’d work on “his own project,” which consisted of stacking some wood and banging it with a hammer. Other times he’d help me, sand some parts or hand me tools. He had a vested interest in it. It helped us connect. It helped me cope, and I think it helped him cope too. “Won’t she be scared in there?” “You aren’t scared after you die, you don’t feel fear, or hot, or cold.” “What about when she wakes up?” “She won’t wake up in here, she won’t be sleeping. When you die your body no longer moves, you don’t eat, you don’t sleep, you don’t breathe.” Words we’d been given to help him through counseling, through talking with other parents in our situation. It’s hard to help a 4 year old grasp death.
Over time I had a few people (friends/neighbors/family) come into the shop and ask what I was building. Some knew what to say, others were understandably awkward and said nothing. I think it was too real for them. There are people now that can’t talk to me about her, won’t look at her picture, watch her videos. They don’t want to hear it. I think the thought of going through what we did, with their own children, is something they just cannot face. They can’t conceive of it, and it’s too close for them. I needed that though. I needed people to ask. I needed people to be interested. I needed to talk. I’m thankful to those that could, that can. I love talking about her. I may cry, but I love talking about her.
As the casket progressed I began to think about what I wanted the inside to look like. I asked Kim is she wanted to make the inside, the mattress, sides, and pillow. That… was a little too much for her. Kim did not want to see the casket until it was done. It was too close and brought too much too close. For me, making the casket, was therapeutic. For Kim, making her blanket was. Once I knew she did not want to make it I knew exactly who I wanted to do it. My mother-in-law, Gretta. She’s incredibly talented with sewing, has made all three boys wonderful teddy bears, has made quilts, you name it. When she was visiting one day I pulled her into the shop and showed her what I’d built so far. She said all the right things, we cried a bit, and then I asked if she’d be up to making the inside. She said yes, she’d love too. I gave her a rough drawing of the inside measurements, that I would like white, and how big/thick I thought everything should be. A few weeks later she returned with a mattress, pillow, and side-rails. It was perfect.
Casket Mattress, pillow, and sidewalls made by Gretta
I finished it shortly thereafter. I often prayed that we would not have to use it. I kept it in the shop for a long time, but did bring it into the house to take pictures of it once. Eventually I wanted to make a set of plans for it, so if someone else was in my position they could use them as a guide… to have more information thanI did.
After she was born, I put it out of my mind. In January I moved it into my office… the shop was cold, and I didn’t want this to be cold. When the time came, if we did need it, I wanted it to be warm. I knew what would need to be done when she passed on, Gabriel would need to see her laid to rest in it.
And she did. She left.
We knew it was important for Gabriel to understand death. To understand Alexandria was not asleep, she was not going to wake up, that she was gone. We’d done our best to prepare him for that, to make him understand that this casket would be her resting place. I included him in every step, from building, to the end. “Do you want to help me lay her down?” “Yes“ We carried her to the casket, which I’d moved into the dining room. We laid her down, he tucked her in.
We closed the lid together.
“Can I lock it?”
“Yes” and I handed him the key.
Gabriel Locking Alexandria's Casket
He was begining to understand the finality. We took pictures, so he’d remember the moment, so he wouldn’t think it was a dream or that she did not die. That was difficult to do, but necessary for someone so young. He “cleared the way”, walking in front of me out to funeral directors car, where we let her go.
Douglas with Gabriel, carrying Alexandria's casket to the funeral director's car.
So, over the last few months, on and off, I’ve worked on creating a set of plans for the casket. I created a fairly close approximation of her casket in Google Sketchup, so that other people can benefit from what I learned. Hopefully it will help others.
You never know the path your life will take. You never know what God will call upon you to do. Sometimes his plan is so difficult to see. But we must have faith, he’s never let us down before.
Child Casket Woodworking Plan
Child Casket Woodworking Plan
The Google Sketchup file can be found here: Child Casket Woodworking Plan
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