:: Article

My Coffin

By Alistair McCartney.



I used to have so many obsessions, I couldn’t keep up with them. But then I came to see they were all secondary obsessions, distracting me from my primary obsession, D _ _ _ h, which makes the function of obsession inevitable, indispensable. Without death there would be no need to obsess. This could mean I’ve matured, or something else entirely.


There’s a retail space at the corner of Lincoln and Washington Boulevards in Venice that has been, in this order: a pet store, a coffin store, a skate shop.

I’ve visited the business in all its manifestations.

I have encountered, in this order, the odors of dogs, wood polish, boys.


The word coffin has several denotations.

It can refer to the part of a horse’s foot that features the so-called coffin bone. We don’t have this bone in our feet.

In the early days of printing, the coffin was the wooden frame around the bed of the press.

The word comes from the Old French cofin, meaning little basket.

Coffin can be used as a verb, as in his lithe body was coffined, but this is getting too circular.

I will disregard a coffin’s connotations.

For our purposes, a coffin is a long, narrow box, typically constructed out of wood, in which a dead body is placed.


When the space on Lincoln was California Caskets, I would gaze in the window whenever I walked by, but I only went inside there once.

As I pushed the door open, and a little bell rang, I could still smell dry pet food, an olfactory remnant from the store’s days as California Pet Supplies. A man came out from a back office, dressed in a dark, cheap suit.

Do you need any help? he asked in a phony solemn voice and I told him I was just browsing—as soon as I said this I realized how odd it must have sounded, but it was too late to take it back. And I couldn’t tell him why I was really there: I wanted to find a coffin with my name written all over it.

I didn’t stay long. The children’s coffins, decorated with waterfalls and castles and unicorns, as if the afterlife is some fantasy kingdom, were disconcerting. The manager was watching me the whole time, as if I might steal something, tuck a coffin down the front of my trousers or into my pocket.

The question of choice and selection was puzzling. What’s more important, the coffin’s interior or exterior? The models that came in bronze and steel, with their polish and chrome and their suggestion of speed, made me feel like I was in a car showroom. A coffin is a mode of transportation.


I know this about coffins: a half-couch casket opens at the top, so you can only see the face of the corpse and the shirt he is wearing, while a full-couch opens completely, so you can also see the corpse’s trousers and the shoes on his feet. As soon as the lid is closed, the corpse must breathe a sigh of relief.


Some years ago, I was walking along the Venice Boardwalk when I came across a guy selling coffins. I kid you not. His stall was squeezed in between a stall selling Rastafarian paraphernalia and one specializing in skull-shaped bongs. He was sitting on a striped folding chair next to a sign that said Ataudes Baratos/Cheap Coffins: Pagos Fáciles/Easy Payments. Right behind him in the parking lot was a car. The rear door was open and two coffins were sticking out.

I wandered over to inspect his merchandise. The coffins were made from a reddish wood. They looked slightly scratched. On a small table there was a laminated menu, like the menus you get in a Chinese restaurant, but with pictures of coffins.

I went back several times—I used to go to the boardwalk regularly, before Holy Cross became my stomping ground—but I never saw him again. I don’t think he had the proper license required of boardwalk vendors. I liked the concept, selecting your coffin after a day in the sun. Yet I sensed there was something fishy about his business, despite the fact or perhaps because he told me that all his coffins were in excellent condition.


The death industry is more exacting than I am in its use of terminology: a coffin has six or eight sides and follows the lines of the human body; a casket has four sides, and does not.

There is a standard size for coffins, but if you’re concerned that it might be a tight fit, an undertaker will be happy to measure your corpse from one side of the bend in the elbow to the other side, while your hands are resting on your abdomen. There’s something indecorous about measuring a corpse for their coffin, like measuring the inseam of a man’s leg at a gentleman’s tailor.


A coffin is also a retail space; a dead body is a commodity. Online, there are coffins with full-length mirrors attached to the inside of the lid, so the dead can check their appearance from time to time, monitor their transformation from your average corpse to full-blown skeleton to something beyond bones.


So I had this dream where I bought myself a coffin, from a mail order catalog. It was a catalog for men’s underwear, but at the back there was a coffin section. At night, I would look at the sexy photos of men in their white jockey shorts and then at the coffins, which were even sexier. Coffins are unseemly. Being caught in your coffin is like someone catching you in your underpants.

I don’t remember the name of the model I chose, but I do recall the caption beneath the photo: A sound investment for your future.

I ordered the coffin, which took ages to arrive, and when it finally did, it looked nothing like the picture; the product was deeply disappointing, as all goods bought from catalogs are destined to be. In fact, I wasn’t even sure it was a coffin. It looked more like a complex, menacing, multitiered spice rack.

I grabbed the catalog, which I had stashed in a hole cut into my mattress. I called up and demanded my money back, but as the customer service representative informed me: All coffins are nonrefundable and nonreturnable.


From The Disintegrations: A Novel by Alistair McCartney. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.



Alistair McCartney is the author of The End of the World Book, a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award in Fiction. He teaches fiction in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, and oversees their undergraduate creative writing concentration. Born in Australia, he lives in Venice, California.


Digitally manipulated detail of ‘FASCIAE AND MUSCLES OF THE HORSE’ illustration, featured in Septimus Sisson’s The Anatomy of the Domestic Animals  (London: W. B. Saunders Company, 1914), p.317.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 12th, 2017.