Coffins Were Homemade



In spite of America's economic woes, a recent article from the Associated Press indicated the casket business continues to be strong. Of course, it has a built-in success quotient.

Speaking of coffins, at Halloween time they can be very popular for spook houses and scary movies. In the early days of Payson, the casket business was strictly voluntary and neighborly. There was no mortuary to give services when family members died. Some men of the community were known for making pine coffins, among them Bill Craig, Frank Owens and Henry Haught. Then certain women and schoolgirls would line the coffin with white or black sateen, carefully tacking it in. These materials were kept on hand by some of the women in the community, especially out on the ranches where there was not time to gather the lining when needed. Neighbors cleansed and dressed the body, and the local justices, John W. Wentworth, George Randall, J. F. Vann or a Mormon bishop from Pine would conduct the funeral service.

If a traveling preacher or missionary were in the area, he would be called upon. Local men would dig the grave and close it again. The entire process was a community effort, much to the comfort of the grieving family. Since there was no facility for embalming, burials took place soon after death.

The word "coffin" comes from the Greek word kophinos, meaning basket. The original reason for coffins was a primitive fear of the dead. Drastic measures were often taken to prevent the dead from haunting the living. In ancient communities of northern Europe, the body would be bound and the feet and head removed to ensure against a return from the grave. The route to the graveyard was circuitous, hoping the dead person would not retrace the path home.

In some cases the dead were taken out of the home by a hole cut in the wall (which was afterward closed), rather than risk using the front door and having them return. The custom of burial six feet underground was another precaution, and entombment in a wooden coffin made it even safer. According to archeologists, many early coffins were secured by far more nails than necessary, affording extra protection.

After the coffin was lowered into the ground a heavy stone was placed on top before the soil was shoveled in. An even larger stone topped the grave, which gave rise to the practice of the tombstone.

The local Apache people had few such precautions. The "coffin" for the deceased was his blanket. The body was taken to a secret place and hidden, perhaps in a rock crevice. The name of the dead family member was not to be spoken again, for fear the name upon the air would serve to call the ghost back to the land of the living. This was fearful both for its potential haunting as well as the desire not to interrupt the delightful life the deceased was now living in the spirit world.

In Payson's pioneer days, making the coffin was a tender service long remembered by families and noted in their diaries.

For example, notes passed down regarding the Ellison family cemetery on the Q Ranch east of Payson indicate the importance of this act.

"First to be buried was Bud Campbell (Robert Lee Campbell, husband of Rose Ellison) who was killed by the Indians near the Ellison Ranch July 6, 1896 ... The coffin used for Bud Campbell was one that had been brought in for Mr. Pringle ... Mrs. Delbridge died of cancer. Ben Nail made her coffin.

"When Uncle John Abbott died in October 1908 Clare Haught made his coffin.

"John Whitlake Gifford was killed by Dan Harkey at the Rock House in Dec. 1913. D. V. Marley sent Rans Spurlock to get Ben Nail to make the coffin..." (Archives, Rim Country Museum)

And what happened to coffin-maker Ben Nail? He was killed by a runaway team of horses. The horses each took opposite sides of a juniper tree near Mud Springs, on the old road between Payson and Star Valley. Ben is buried on the Cline ranch "near the west gate on the old road that led to Payson." (Rim Country History)

Ben's brother Preston is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery under a simple plaque that says "Pres Nail."

Both men were bachelors, but the community gathered to do what Ben and Pres had done for others: build the coffin and lay them with care in a deep grave, where there was no escape until "that Great Getting Up Morning."

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