Back in the day, many built their own

When I was a very young boy growing up in Virginia, there was a very old man in our neighborhood who was was eccentric. He almost never spoke to anyone, except to scold them in a cackling tone. He was said to be very wealthy but scarcely ever spent so much as a dime. What’s more, he was reputed to have built his own coffin in the work shed behind his house.  


His immediate neighbors boasted that they had watched him doing so through the hedges. And those few that turned out for his funeral testified that they saw him being buried in it, too. But the thing that sealed his fate as to being a true eccentric is that it was widely rumored he slept in his handmade coffin each night for many years before his death.

Great Britain, for whatever reason, has for centuries specialized in eccentrics of all varieties. Naturally enough, that island nation has produced the majority of coffin-building tales that I’ve encountered.

At Highdown Hill, near Ferring, is a site visited by many curious people so as to view the altar-like tomb of John Oliver, or ‘Miller Oliver’ as he was known, who lived in a mill on the hill. He was a famous Sussex eccentric, who made his own coffin years before he was likely to need it and kept it on castors under his bed. When he finally died at 84 in 1793, 2,000 people attended the funeral to catch a glimpse of the famous coffin.

Jemmy Hirst of Rawcliffe was one of Yorkshire’s most eccentric characters during the early 18th century.  For one thing, he rode a bull rather than a horse when foxhunting. For another, he made a vehicle equipped with sails and a carriage of wicker-work that housed his bed and was drawn by Andalusian mules.  Jemmy, of course, constructed his own coffin. It had windows and shelves. When he died in 1829, aged 91, 12 pounds from his estate was set aside to pay a dozen old maids to follow his coffin to the burying ground. Two musicians were also engaged, a fiddler and a piper, who, as a final salute, played Jemmy’s favorite tune “O’er the Hills and Far Away.” 

Not to be outdone, other parts of the world have produced their fair share of eccentrics. A man named Shoobridge lived on Bruny Island off the coast of Tasmania. His nickname was the Bruny Island Bomber because of his love for the Essendon Bombers Football Team. He made his own coffin and requested that when he passed his head was to be pointed toward Windy Hill, the home of the Essendon Football Club.

This country has turned out its fair share of “original characters” — as eccentrics were know in the 19th century. Daniel Boone made his own coffin and kept it under his bed. In Pennsylvania during the 1800s, a relatively young shopkeeper named Bishop Moffit made his own coffin. One day a man named Warren Snow, who Moffit didn’t care for, entered his place of business. Seeing the coffin hanging over the checkout counter, Snow dared to inquire as why it had been made so far in advance of his likely death. Moffit looked up and replied: “I want everything dry and light so I can go over Hell just a-flying, so I won’t have to stop down and see you.”

Closer to home, Sylva native John Parris noted in These Stories Mountains (1972) that “Many a mountain man has made his own coffin. But old man Eddie Conner is the only man I ever heard of who planted the tree that provided the lumber for the one they laid him away in.”

In May 1885, Conner had as a young man planted a walnut sprout at his sister’s home place in the Smokemont area of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1918 he suffered  “a slight stroke of paralysis” and decided it was high time to get “busy making my preparations for the last go-round.” By this date, the walnut sprout had grown into a tree that measured two feet and seven inches in diameter.

With the help of two Cherokee Indian men, Conner felled the tree and they drug it to nearby rail line, where it was loaded up and freighted “to the big band sawmill at Ravensford where the lumber was cut for my casket.” A carpenter by the name of Jim Ayers assisted Conner in the construction of his casket.  

This wasn’t your ordinary run of the mill casket. It featured “a heavy walnut panel on the lid to make a round or oval-shaped top.” It was “trimmed in three-inch cherry molding, cut in mitered squares like picture frames, leaving a two-inch black walnut margin clear around the top, the sides and the ends.” The brown and red colors highlighted the casket’s appearance so much that, in Conner’s eyes, it “truly gives a beautiful combination beyond compare.”

When it was done, Conner gave his creation a test drive, as it were, by putting in his pillow and laying down in it “to see how good it fit.” 

The coffin was then stored away in the attic of Coot Hyatt’s home above Bryson City. Upon passing away in 1951 at the age of 87 — 33 years after finishing it — Eddie Conner was laid to rest in his masterpiece.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in July 2004.

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