High School Students Build, Donate Infant CasketsThe erratic buzz of saws reverberates through the Bonner Springs High School wood shop weeks after school let out.
The smell and taste of fine pine dust lingers in the air. And teacher Kris Munsch can?t help but smile with satisfaction while watching his students gently handle the lumber.
The summer project isn?t like the chip-and-dip platters or nightstands they crafted during the school year. The teenagers are transforming wood into pine caskets for infants.
Having lost his teenage son almost five years ago, Munsch has never hesitated to talk to his students about life and death. So when he heard about families who couldn?t afford a casket for their deceased newborns, Munsch shared it with some students.
?Can we build little (caskets) and sell them?? a student asked.
Munsch knew a simple pine casket would be inexpensive, $25 or so.
?Why don?t we build little ones and donate?? Munsch said.
The students were energized.
Seventeen-year-old Jessica Johnson offered to take it on as her senior project, and other students jumped in to assist. Quickly, community members and business owners wanted in on the grassroots project. A quilting group offered to sew tiny blankets, and a lumber store donated wood. Others wanted to help build.
Within weeks, the Soft Pine Project was up and running. Last week, the group came together and built 22 tiny caskets, which they call burial cradles. The cradles will be donated to families who cannot afford one.
News of the program amazed area social service groups.
?You?re kidding?? said Patti Lewis, founder and house mother at Alexandra?s House, a perinatal hospice in Kansas City. ?This is a high school? How wonderful ? to teach those kids at that age to learn stewardship.?
Alexandra?s House often pays for funerals, sometimes as many as three each month. Many funeral homes are willing to donate their services, she said, but they can?t afford to donate a casket, too.
Students understand if the project makes adults feel a bit uneasy. The students admitted they were anxious at first.
?I freaked out,? Johnson said of her initial reaction.
Johnson, an A-student who plans to be a neonatal nurse, was prepared for her friends? reactions.
?They said, ?Oh my god, that?s kind of depressing, don?t you think? You?re talking about babies dying; what is wrong with you????
But Johnson knew they would understand with a more detailed explanation.
?I?m like, well, it?s something people have to deal with, and there are not a lot of people to help out with that.?
Inside the classroom last week, community members helped Munsch and the students get the project off the ground.
As the first cradle came together, Munsch kept a close watch on his students. He noticed something different.
?It literally made me step back and just watch them because they know the end result,? he said. ?They handle the boards different. They sand the edges different. It?s just gentler because they know what we?re doing.?
The volunteers worked with purpose. Some were eager to soak in knowledge from a devoted teacher like Munsch, who has turned down jobs in neighboring suburban districts. Others have personal stories.
?My sister was a stillborn. My little sister,? said Samantha Weller, a 15-year-old entering her sophomore year. ?It really hit home.?
Retired high school secretary Linda Kasselman had her reasons, too. Not long ago she walked into Munsch?s classroom and spotted the infant casket. It took her back to 1977 when she had to pick out a casket for her stillborn baby boy.
?It helps me to come down here and know that we?re helping someone else,? Kasselman said. ?It just spoke to me.?
Munsch thought of his 16-year-old son who died in a car wreck in 2005. He has spent the years since trying to regain his footing.
At one time Munsch worried that parents and community members might wonder if he had lost his mind. Munsch and another teacher recently co-wrote ?The Birdhouse Project,? a book that deals with the grief and sorrow of losing his son. The book has helped many cope with various losses, like unemployment and death.
All the talk about death could make some wonder about his sanity. Munsch called the superintendent in to make sure the burial cradles didn?t catch anyone by surprise.
?What if someone says, ?What is he doing? His son dies and now ? he?s running a death thing over there,??? he said.
The superintendent approved.
For now the group has started small with 22 burial cradles. They?ve worked out an agreement with one hospital and hope to expand to other hospitals and social service groups.
?I don?t know if we?ll go through 20 in two months or 20 in two years,? Munsch said. ?I don?t even know if that?s the point.?
Construction is largely complete on the first set of cradles, and the students don?t expect to build more until the fall.
However, there is one more task. Munsch has asked the students and volunteers to include a note to the families. Students are finding this to be the most difficult part.
?I?ve been giving that note a lot of thought, and I?m just not sure what to write,? 16-year-old student Ethan Hook told Munsch.
But that process is an important part of the Soft Pine Project, Munsch said.
Another personal touch is the angels the students carved on the inside and outside of each burial cradle. Hearts adorn the side. The end result is a beautiful, yet no-frills casket made of pine.
It might not appeal to everyone, but as a father who has buried a son, Munsch knows parents will see the meaning.
?If I was that parent and I knew that teenagers made this, I would want that,? Munsch said. ?If there is a moment of feeling better in that situation ? that would be one of the things that would make you feel better ? the slightest glimmer of anything good. You want it so bad and it?s so hard to find.?