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Humour meets grief
January 20, 2018
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For years, Akron author David Giffels joked with his wife, Gina, about his wishes for a cheap and no-fuss funeral. A simple cardboard box would do.

It was during a trip to a funeral home to help pick out a casket for Gina’s dad that he discovered his wish for a cardboard coffin could be a possibility. And for just $75. His father, Thomas, overheard one of these subsequent playful banters between the husband and wife and offered to help David build his own casket and avoid the wrath of Gina over the thought of burying her husband in a cardboard box.

Thus began a father-son, build-it-yourself journey that became something much more than a simple woodworking project for the former Akron Beacon Journal writer and now associate professor at the University of Akron.

As they toiled over the task in his father’s woodshop/barn in Bath Township, David grieved the loss of his mother, Donna Mae, in 2012 and then his best friend, John Puglia both within a year.

This grief coupled with Giffels turning 50 and his now-widowed father being in his 80s took a whimsical woodworking project in a whole new direction.

The project became a labour of love, bonding with his father and a way for David to confront his own grief and mortality. It also became the fodder for his third book, “Furnishing Eternity,” released recently.

Like his previous two books — “The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches From the Rust Belt” and “All the Way Home” that chronicled his family’s restoration of an old mansion in Akron’s Highland Square neighbourhood — Giffels’ latest labour of love is being met with some critical acclaim.

Just last week, the book landed a coveted favourable review from the New York Times. “Tender, witty and, like the woodworking it describes, painstakingly and subtly wrought,” wrote Samuel G. Freedman of the New York Times Book Review. “Furnishing Eternity continues Giffels’s unlikely literary career as the bard of Akron, Ohio.”

Like writing a book, Giffels admits now that building your own wooden casket is not a simple task, particularly when your partner is a retired engineer and a master woodworker.

“My dad is the true spine of the book,” Giffels said. “He starts the book as the oldest person I know and ends as the most alive person I know.”

In the five years or so it took to write the book and build the casket, Giffels said, his dad’s health has declined somewhat.

Although the book has a heavy undertone of grief and mortality, there’s a lot of humour mixed in, too.

One of life’s questions that is answered is what does one do with a very, very, heavy, full-size casket once it is finished and waiting for its still very-much-alive future occupant? Let’s just say you’ll have to read the book to find that one out.

He humorously recounts the uncomfortable visit he made to Akron funeral expert Paul Hummel of the funeral home with the same moniker to discuss the rules, if any, involved in making one’s own final resting box.

There was debate between Giffels and his dad over whether it had to be waterproof: “The ongoing joke was me saying ‘I’m not resistant to rot. Why should it be?’”

The short answer is not for the squeamish. It does not have to be waterproof. After cobbling together pieces of pine and oak purchased at Home Depot to create his casket and countless words to fill a 243-page book, Giffels is still at a loss to explain the mysteries of death other than it is inevitable and often unexpected. He said, “It is fruitless to spend too much time worrying about this.”

Tribune News Service

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