By Angela Giles Patel

The word “coffin” entered the English lexicon from the Old French cofin. The French word comes from the Latin cophinus, which was derived from the Greek kophinos. All iterations mean the same thing: a basket. In the early 16th century, “coffin” began to be used to describe a container that holds a dead body for burial. The shape of a coffin is unique. Ultimately just a box, it is wider at the top than at the bottom, looking like a rough version of the object it contains, with shoulders narrowing to feet. It is a distinct shape, and often used for chilling effect in horror films. Technically any box used to bury the dead is a coffin.

I know the weight of my sister’s brain: 1290 grams or 3.4 pounds.

I know her heart was pear-shaped.

I know the characteristics of every other major organ in her body.

The origin of the word “casket” is uncertain, though it was commonly used to refer to a small box or chest for valuable items like jewelry or letters. In the mid-1800s, as the popularity of the trade increased, undertakers in America began to replace the word “coffin” with “casket” in their vernacular, creating a euphemism of sorts. In co-opting a word that was typically used to denote the care of precious things, the idea of the burial box itself became muted, less morbid. The actual object also became more palatable as the shadowy, body-shaped coffin was replaced by a rectangular shape that did not outwardly reflect its contents.

I know that she complained of feeling a bit nauseous that evening.

I know she was spending the evening with friends who were certified paramedics.

I know they were one-half mile from the hospital.

Selecting one is a dreadful and unnatural experience that tugs at you in different ways, regardless of how you refer to it. Intellectually, you know that the person you are selecting it for is dead, but then there is talk of bugs and decomposition and suddenly you find yourself searching to preserve the person in the best way possible. You start looking at the object in sentimental terms. You forget its main purpose is to hold a corpse.

I know they were planning on helicopter test runs the next morning.

I know they had emergency medical equipment on site.

I know she had no drugs in her system other than what was administered trying to save her.

You evaluate the details like the strength of the seal, how much protection the body is offered, double linings, ability to withstand corrosion and impact—you hold on to this list of requirements like they make any real difference. You learn that making the casket airtight will actually cause the body to liquefy, that some air passing in and out is necessary to achieve good skeletonization.

I know she had old adhesions from a ruptured cyst on her left ovary.

I know these adhesions caused the blood supply to her small bowel to be reduced.

I know this reduction in blood flow caused her small bowel to become ischemic.

When Cristi died, we chose a golden sand-colored casket. The burial vault we selected was a standard vault, double lined and reinforced. The total cost was $8,151.37. This includes “add-on” items. We opted for an ivory interior lining with a matching ivory pillow. We did not change the panels or the hardware. We added molded roses to each outside corner. They were affixed at the seam. They were intended to make the box look more feminine. Each rose was removed prior to lowering the casket into the ground. My rose sits in a curio cabinet in my den, next to the dried flowers from my father’s funeral. Both are enclosed in glass.

I know that she was one of the less than five percent who were completely asymptomatic.

I know that created a situation in which she began to hemorrhage.

I know that her abdomen filled with blood.

The physical components of her life are contained in three clear plastic storage boxes.  They are tucked away in the corner closet of the guestroom in my mother’s house, neatly stacked behind winter coats.  From the outside, they resemble any other household box filled with clutter and hidden from immediate view, but inside are photos, letters, various trinkets—all hers.

I know that at approximately 10:50 p.m. she said she felt like she was having a seizure.

I know that she went into cardiac arrest and lost consciousness immediately after speaking.

I know that her lungs also bled.

I take the boxes out carefully and look through them one at a time, replacing the contents and resealing one box before I move on to the next. I do this each time I am home and each time I try to bring her memory close.  I take the cap off the bottle of perfume and try to breathe her in, careful not to spill a drop. It is a sweet, musky, vanilla smell. I hold her necklaces and place her rings on my fingers. I like the feel of the cool smooth metal on my skin. I study the rings on my hand and try to recall how her hands looked. Sometimes, I feel myself sliding into a space where I can almost touch what it felt like, what I felt like, when my sister was alive. The only other time I get close to feeling that whole is when I see her in my dreams.

I know that she had a faint pulse but was non-responsive from the moment she collapsed.

I know that her friends began treating her immediately with medication and CPR.

I know that she was intubated and defibrillated at least twice before the police arrived.

There are two copies of her autopsy in a manila envelope that I keep on the top shelf of my closet. The envelope also contains two copies of reports from the police department, fire department, and hospital. Thirty-five pages of paper. All photocopies. Based on signatures and changes in handwriting, at least ten different people were involved in detailing the final ninety minutes of my sister’s life. Pages are signed and countersigned. I keep it on the top shelf because I can’t think of any other place it belongs.

I know that the police arrived at 10:56.

I know that the fire department arrived at 11:10.

I know she was under the care of emergency room personnel by 11:20.

I have a record of those minutes from different vantage points, each faceless person documenting an experience of her. The account is rich with jargon and multi-dimensional and completely devoid of emotion. The envelope itself is in good condition. One copy of the documents is pristine. One copy has my notes on it. All annotated papers are in good condition. Only her name, in my handwriting, is on the outside of the envelope. Looking at it, you would never know what was inside the envelope. Holding it, you would never know that in your hands you held the last moments of my sister’s life.

I know that the medical personnel were told she had a three-year-old son.

I know that the attempt to revive and stabilize her in the emergency room lasted nearly an hour.

I know she was pronounced dead at 00:22, April 29, 2001.

I have spent hours analyzing sentences and deconstructing the autopsy for meaning beyond the strangely flat words that cover each sheet of paper. It is a calculus of her death. Facts are dressed in lengthy sentences while tidy phrases like “grossly not remarkable” and “essentially normal” are repeated. They add a strange refrain to the reckoning. A neatly typed word on the first page, bold, capitalized, and set apart, pronounces this death as “NATURAL.” My sister was 28. She was studying to be a nurse. The result of the equation makes no sense to me.

I know what her death looks like on paper.

I have the electrocardiogram for the last hour of her life.

I can trace the line with my finger.

My sister had three small hearts tattooed on her ankle; this is not noted anywhere in the documentation. The fact that her nail polish was chipped, that her eyes were blue, that her hair was red is reflected in the record. The jewelry she was wearing is listed, as is her clothing: blue pants, brown belt, pink shirt, purple panties. These are details that are more familiar. On one of the reports, there is a note that emergency personnel had to cut off her clothes to properly administer care. This note is handwritten and lists lace panties among the pieces of clothing that was destroyed. The daintiness that surrounds the phrase “lace panties” is almost charming. The intimacy of that statement is crushing.

It is a single line that is more like a mountain range so far off its peaks look almost smooth.

On the printout, the mountain range becomes a plateau.

I can touch the moment they declared her dead.

The setting is always the same. I am outdoors, in a park or garden, on a warm and sunny day. The sunlight filters through the trees and is refracted on thousands of small particles that are gently drifting upward. Calling her name, I slowly turn until I see her. Her smile widens with recognition. With no hesitation, she comes toward me and I feel my throat tightening with relief that she is here, that I’ve found her.  She walks with confidence, thin and poised, with the easy stride of a dancer. Sometimes I hear her voice, sometimes her laugh, but even when she is silent, it feels real. So real that each time I wake up, I have a split second where I’m giddy with relief until I remember wiping my warm tears from her cold, stiff face just before the funeral began.


Angela Giles Patel has had her work appear online at The Nervous Breakdown, Literary Mothers, Medium: Human Parts and other literary sites. She has been featured in print by The Healing Muse and is a contributor to Shades of Blue, an anthology on depression and suicide from Seal Press. She tweets as @domesticmuse, and when inspired updates her blog, Air Hunger. Angela lives in Massachusetts where she conquers the world, one day at a time.