In Chatham County, a pine coffin business teaches us about life | Photo Journal | Indy Week
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In Chatham County, a pine coffin business teaches us about life 

Don planes a board for the lid of Sarah's coffin.

Photo by Lisa Sorg

Don planes a board for the lid of Sarah's coffin.

"When I set out to make a coffin, I try to donate one breath to the intention of making something that's worthy of a life." —Don Byrne

Don Byrne, his wife, Nicole, and two young children live on a rural Chatham County farmstead without indoor plumbing or electricity. There, in an outdoor workshop, at Piedmont Pine Coffins, Don handcrafts pine coffins without the use of power tools.

Since March, I've been working on a documentary A Sense of the Fitness of Things, about the Byrnes, their pine coffin business, and the people and attitudes toward death they encounter in the course of their work.

When family members engage in the undertaking of their loved ones, Don says—by choosing the method of burial, decorating the coffin, hammering in the final nails—"they take back control of their family story."

One of those stories focuses on the Overtons. In late March, I met Sarah Overton Partridge, who was in hospice care, dying of Alzheimer's. Her oldest daughter, Ann, had pre-ordered a coffin for her.

"How can I honor her in the best way that is true to her roots, true to who she is?" Ann said. "Even though she's the most lovely, well-dressed formal lady, there is nothing artificial about her. She wanted something simple, and at one point, because we had moved so much, she said, 'Just put me in a Mayflower packing box.' I thought I could do a little better than that."

Don finished the coffin on March 30. Sarah died three weeks later.

What I've learned from the Byrnes is that only by taking a holistic view of life as the transformation of one form into another—a pine tree into a coffin, for example—can we fully and fearlessly live. — Lisa Sorg

See more photos at indyweek.com. The film will be finished in early 2015 and posted on the INDY's website.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Work, for the night is coming."

  • Death, pine coffins and life stories

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