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BILL TAMMEUS You shall know them by their caskets



Published: Thu, February 10, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



I've been hunting only once in my life, so I'm guessing that a new line of camouflage caskets featuring deer, ducks or turkeys won't be appropriate for me when I buy the farm.

Still, I find something appealing -- not appalling -- about these camo caskets built and sold by Arkansas Casket Sales of Heber Springs, Ark., www.camocasket.com. I like the notion that we can tug on Death's cape and celebrate -- even a little whimsically -- the life of the one who has died.

There are -- and should be -- tears and grief, but we need not completely give ourselves over to that sadness.

These 18-gauge steel, gasketed, $2,995, made-in-U.S.A., shippable-anywhere, Visa- or MasterCard-accepted caskets come in "natural" and "evergreen," and co-owner Ruth Ann Graves (the perfect last name to own a casket company) says they have been "well-received. We've had a few sales. We feel like we're getting there, but it's just been hard getting the word out."

Her husband, Hugh Graves, says camo caskets fit into the move toward more personalized funerals.

"Things are changing from the old morbid way of gruesome funerals," he says. "It's a time to celebrate." And yet he adds this: "We strictly are serious about this. Death is serious. When it happens to your family, it hurts. But we do something for the family that actually helps them."

Graves says he got to attend the visitation of the man whose family bought the first camo casket they made.

Help in grieving

Person after person, he says, told family members: "That's your dad all over." Having the surprising casket, he said, "helped them with the grieving process."

But, he acknowledges, "It's not for everybody."

And yet everyone -- whether people of faith or people who stay as far away from religion as possible -- eventually must face death. And there are honored traditions about how we say farewell and -- depending on the religion, if any -- about how we understand death.

But even in the most somber cultures, there surely is space at the end of a life to say, "This is part of who this person was." One way we say that is through funeral traditions, including the choice of casket.

When my father died 13 years ago, we chose a big-boned, wooden casket that reflected his gentle masculinity. When my mother died almost nine years ago, our choice was a soft, pinkish metal that spoke of her love of beauty and her feminine qualities.

Cremation

I hope to avoid putting my survivors through such a choice by being cremated and having my ashes buried on the grounds of my church. But if I were to have a traditional burial, I might suggest that my family look for a nontraditional casket -- say, one that had newspaper headlines all over it. I agree with Hugh and Ruth Ann Graves that there is a lot of room for expressions of individuality in funerals.

One reason is that religious tradition in almost all cultures for centuries has viewed life as an enormous, precious gift.

It's one reason, for example, that all major religions approve of organ and tissue donation so that one who is dying may help extend life for others. There certainly are different approaches among various religious groups on this subject, but the overwhelming emphasis is on the value of preserving life and passing it on.

In some ways, that's because religions recognize that the mysterious reality of life itself is not something individuals own, exactly.

Religion's respect for life is also why the debate over abortion and the use of embryonic stem cells has been so heated, and why most religious traditions develop careful policies and approaches for how people should be treated when they're terminally ill.

Doing something a little odd -- like choosing a casket decorated with hunting camouflage -- is not a way of making fun of those serious concerns. Rather, it's another way of affirming life as a joyous gift.

X Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star.




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