I usually write just about cemeteries, but this was too good to skip over. So today’s post is a little different, but still related to death and funeral memorabilia.
Last weekend we went to Mt. Dora to scout out some antiques and walk around. There was also a cemetery there that I wanted to visit a second time to get a photo of an unusual headstone that I had not photographed the first time I was there. I had regretted not taking pictures of it, and it had a story to be told that I wanted to research…and then tell.
We walked through aisles and aisles of antiques on that blazing hot day, sweating like crazy and pointing things out to each other. We shared a watermelon popsicle. We visited friends that own one of the booths there and talked to them for awhile, listening to their plans for expanding their shop. I mentioned that I was starting a collection of embalming bottles and asked them to call me if they ever saw anything interesting.
They both looked at each other for a beat before Denise said, “We had a coffin once”.
“Really? What kind? ” I asked.
She whipped out her phone and showed me a picture, it was a wicker one- old- and had a person laying in it with a beer can balanced on their chest. She mentioned that they’d been at an antiques festival and someone who’d been drinking had wanted to test it out.
“But you know,” she said, pausing and obviously thinking about something, “one of the dealers inside has one, and it’s for a child.” She told us where to go inside the main building and said, “Just keep looking up- you’ll see it on one of the shelves.”
We headed inside the main building and I had gone about halfway through the first aisle when I spied it. I handed Shawn the remains of the popsicle, wiped my hands on my dress, and approached. It was up high and I could have reached up and touched it, but instead I just stood there, licking watermelon flavor off of my lips and staring up at this coffin. I’m sure that I looked crazy.
A dealer materialized and stood next to me silently looking skyward.
“Do you know what it is?” he asked me.
I turned and looked at an older gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt; his eyes looked mischievous and I immediately liked him. He was smiling.
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” I said. And it was. The dark wicker was in great shape and didn’t seem to have a single flaw. Plus it was smaller than I had expected.
“You do?!” he asked. “Two girls came in here yesterday thinking it was a basket to hold flowers. They weren’t happy when I told them it was a coffin.”
I laughed. I told him that I loved funeral history and wrote about cemeteries, and he asked me if I ‘d like to see it, because it was leather lined on the inside. I knew I wouldn’t be buying it, but I accepted his offer to take a closer look. He was so excited to show it to me, and he mentioned that it had been used for viewing and transport, but not for burial. As my friend Keila had pointed out when I sent her a picture of it, “That doesn’t look like it would hold up very well underground.”
When Shawn caught up with me I was bent over the coffin with this man, and we were both pointing out features of the pleated leather lining. The lid was propped up next to us, and we were both engrossed in the conversation. I love it when I find one of my own.
Sometimes I feel bad for Shawn. I know it gets weird for him sometimes. I think back to the ways I’ve tried his kindness- asking him if we could make an offer for a coffin in North Carolina, telling him I’d like to hang a cooling board from the 1860’s on the hallway wall, asking for an embalming bottle for my birthday, happily pointing out a case of glass eyeballs in an antique shop one time. The list goes on, and he’s been a good sport every time. Today however, when we closed the lid back on the small coffin and the dealer got on the ladder, Shawn offered to hand it up to him. I’d been there when he handed it down to me and there had been a moment where I’d felt a parent from over a hundred years ago carrying their child in this. Maybe I imagined it, but the notion of it’s true purpose wasn’t lost on me. So, I tried to get there first but Shawn was faster and he picked it up gingerly and lifted it up to the dealer, looking at me for a moment over the top of it’s domed lid. His face was totally blank, but his eyes met mine and I had the feeling he wasn’t happy.
We ended up buying a book from that dealer and talking for awhile longer. When we left I mentioned that I was hungry. Shawn said he’d like to wash his hands.
I recalled trips together where he had eaten with his hands in places I’d never dream of eating in without a good scrub or a bottle of hand sanitizer. Airports. Airplanes. Outdoor festivals. Malls. But this time he wanted to wash his hands. We took care of that and I didn’t judge.
I’m not gonna lie- I wanted that coffin- but I didn’t tell him that. The selling price was 275 dollars and it was in wonderful condition. I had no clue where I’d put it, but I do know that if I’d been single, I’d probably have gone home with it that day.
There is an odd aspect to collecting funeral antiques- you have to keep other people in mind. I always think- if someone came over and saw this, would we stay friends or would they haul ass? The truth is, I want people to be comfortable in my house. The embalming bottles are unusual, small, and will be an unobtrusive collection. A coffin is pretty confrontational. However, I do know that the best collections are held by people who follow their own desires and don’t consider what others will think. And that’s okay too, I really admire those people.