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One Family’s Example of Bold Resolve and the Message It Sends

November 11, 2022

Life, as we are painfully aware, is a cascade of ‘I-would-rather-not-be-here’ moments. Stress-inducing layers of dread overspreading dread. Everything from the spectacle of dealing with a car salesperson pushing to make a sale so they can meet their monthly quota to waiting for test results from the doctor. Waiting to see if you made it into the college of your dreams.

Death is also baked in to the narrative. As much as we want to candy coat its reality, it effortlessly skulks around every beating heart on the planet, pouncing when we’re at our most vulnerable, as money-grubbing morticians circle their prey. Wasn’t it Woody Allen who famously said that it wasn’t that he feared death – he just didn’t want to be there when it happens.

When my parents died, their funerals cost around $11,000 apiece. The funeral guy took us back into the ‘showroom’ displayed with caskets with different price tags. “This one,” he announced, pointing to the gleaming Cadillac of containers, “is durable enough to keep the elements out.” They’re probably cruising through the underground, daring water and worms to ruin their day.

For all the reasons that drive human nature, consumers continue to funnel their hard-earned dollars into a time-honored, $20 billion industry. But ask warm, plain-spoken John Bourquin about it, and he doesn’t mince his words. “It’s a racket.”

When God commanded “that’s a wrap!” and called Janice Marie, his beloved wife of 44 years to her reward, John, 70, was a deacon and fixture at St. Luke Orthodox Church in the Denver area. The retired hospital medical technician knew his cue. His lines in life’s final act were memorized.

Janice fought a fierce battle against cancer. Her final days were spent in hospice care at home in Thornton. Drawing on the family’s devout Christian roots, she agreed to dispense with the costly extravagances and be buried in a simple wooden box that her husband would build.

“A month before she passed,” and with her approval, he bought boards from Home Depot or Lowe’s, gently laying them on the floor of their garage.

In the early stages of the project, Bourquin noted, “I didn’t know what I was doing.” When his eldest son took a look at his progress, he asked his dad if he was going to paint or varnish it. His father said no, explaining it was “basically a plain pine box. There’s no sense in it.”

When his wife passed at age 64, the next steps the family took were enough to frighten the funeral industry…to death. “There were no chemicals,” he said. “We just used dry ice to keep the body cool.”

From the house, where friends and family would gather to provide emotional and spiritual support, her body was taken to the church and then to the cemetery. The bill for all services rendered amounted to under $3,000. Under the law, “you have to be buried in a vault,” Bourquin said, the disgust heavy in his tone. “One of the excuses they use is if you don’t, it can cause groundwater contamination, which is bull.”

“We’re so shielded” from the subject of death, observed Father Stephan Close, a priest at St. Luke. In earlier generations, it was common for the body of a loved one to be displayed in the front parlor of a house. “People would come by, pay their respects, until the deceased was buried in a nearby church cemetery. It brought closure.”

The subject revolving around end-of-days is more of a riddle than ever. “Parents don’t want to shock their children or horrify them,” Father Stephan asserted. But withholding information about such a delicate matter is also meant to spare parents from having to confront their own feelings.

In his church office, visitors may find it hard to bury their thoughts – no pun meant – but maybe it’s because of what they spy as they walk in. Father Stephan, a former Air Force chaplain, described the casket he keeps there as “a very plain wooden box, six-and-a-half feet tall and a couple feet deep with railings and a lid with a cross. It’s not creepy looking, not sinister.”

The Bourquin-made container, he explained, is there for anyone who needs one. And if enough times elapses without a taker, “it may end up being mine!”

The priest doesn’t dismiss as weak those who struggle with faith. “It’s OK to have doubt,” he said. “It’s not OK to put your trust in your doubts.”

Meanwhile, Bourquin pointed with pride to the dozen or so caskets he’s built. While he charges a reasonable $500 for each one, it’s not about the money, he said. And if for some reason he doesn’t get paid he says, “I don’t make a big deal of it.” Because that’s not the point. Before the chest is used on a one and done basis, he signed off with a piece of advice, a golden nugget served with passion, humility, and reverence: “Don’t let people die in the hospital alone. Go and be there.”

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