Saying Goodbye to Our Friend Bill Coperthwaite

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“For a long moment we all stood there in silence, as the casket rocked gently on the waves lapping beneath the boats, the new wood bright against the dark surface of the sea.”
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In “A Man Apart,” Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow explore the timeless lessons of Coperthwaite’s experiment in intentional living and self-reliance.

Bill Coperthwaite inspired many by living close to nature and in opposition to contemporary society, and was often compared to Henry David Thoreau. A Man Apart, by Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow, is the story of their friendship with Coperthwaite, whose unusual life and fierce Ideals helped them examine and understand their own. This excerpt is from Chapter 1, “The Last Journey.”

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Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.
— Emily Dickinson

William Coperthwaite died on November 26, 2013, two days before Thanksgiving. He was driving southwest from his home in Machiasport, Maine, toward Brunswick, to spend the holiday as he always did with his surrogate family, Julie and Tom, their children, and Julie’s mother Sonni, who had been a friend of Bill’s since his college days in the early 1950s. 

When Julie arrived home from work that afternoon she expected to see Bill’s car parked on the street near their house. Tom and Sonni were already home and would be there to welcome him. But instead she saw a police cruiser and found an officer waiting for her in the kitchen, her mother sitting down and pale. Bill had been found, his car totaled, along an icy roadside in Washington, Maine, some miles away. It was a single-car accident, without witness, but it appeared that he had died instantly when he spun off the road and impacted an oak tree that was forced through the driver’s side door. The roads had been slick that morning, the frozen land glazing to black ice the drizzle of the night prior.

On that dreary cold Tuesday before Thanksgiving, word went out to all those whom Bill considered family, and soon the calls and e-mails were flooding in to our farmhouse in Vermont. As one of his neighbors in Machias once said, “Bill was a hermit who loved people,” and that day after his death we were reminded how enormous his circle of friends and admirers really was. We were hosting friends and family for Thanksgiving at our farm in Vermont, but almost as soon as the meal was eaten and dishes were done, Peter and I packed up the leftover turkey and headed for Maine with our nine-year-old daughter, Wren. Our older daughter, Willow, fifteen, decided to stay home with relatives and a friend she had invited for the holiday. 

We arrived at Bill’s on Friday morning, stopping at the Machiasport post office to pick up Bill’s mail. The postmistress, Ann, came out, wanting to hear more about the news. She said they all loved it when Bill came in, that he was always cracking jokes and that he got the most interesting collection of mail, all of it sent to “General Delivery.” He was the only person in Machias with neither a street address nor a post office box. “Our respect for him earned him different treatment,” Ann said. “He had an arrangement that anyone visiting him could pick up his mail, and we had lots of locals who would ask if it had been picked up in a while, because if it hadn’t we were apt to get a little worried about him and go in and check up on things.”

We parked in the patch of mossy woods down a rough road where Bill’s car was conspicuously absent and started the long walk in along his foot trail. We walked over the floating bridge he had made years ago to cross the beaver pond and meandered through maples and balsam fir. When we came to the place where the woods open up and the maples are evenly spaced, with neat piles of firewood stacked among them, I paused, where normally I would pick up my pace. I could not imagine Bill’s home without Bill, but now there it was, four sweeping curved roofs and four full circles of windows, gray and silver amid the gray woods and sky. 

Peter and I found Bill’s friend Kenneth in Bill’s woodshop, finishing the top of the rough pine casket that he and Tigger, another close friend, had made. He was fastening the pine boards together with hand-carved battens, curving at the ends, the knife marks visible, much as Bill might have done.

Peter remembered Bill’s showing him where he wanted to be buried, just beyond his woodlot in a grove of maples. Those of us gathered headed into the trees, agreed on a place that was a natural opening where the ground was less gnarled with tree roots, and with shovels began to dig. We aligned the head of the grave to the east. Bill’s friend Tim Beal, who owned a sawmill close by and had done much of the figuring and cutting of boards for Bill’s building projects over the years, was there with his son and brother. We peeled away the duff of decaying leaves and moss and reindeer lichen, surprisingly soft despite the season, and made a careful roll of it to the side. Then we started down through a couple of inches of woodland soil to the thick gray clay of the ancient seabed. Clay stuck on our boots until we had small stilts on our feet. It smeared along our jeans and the sleeves of our rain gear. Slowly we shed our layers as we went deeper into the ground. All day, chipping with mattocks, then scraping with shovels at the cold clay, we took turns, others arriving to join, until we had a perfect rectangle that found bottom on a surprisingly even ledge, three feet by eight feet, five feet down.

Goodbye, Bill Coperthwaite

Next morning in the first light six of us carried Bill’s two twenty-foot handmade canoes out of the boathouse and slipped them gently into the water. In the bottom of each we laid two rafters that we would use to lash the pine casket across the gunnels for the paddle home. December 1 had dawned cold, with a light icy drizzle. Several of us had lain awake in the night listening to the wind moan over the ocean, worrying that the weather would prevent us from getting across to Duck Cove, but the water in Bill’s protected tidal pond looked calm. We would see what we faced in the ocean crossing beyond Johnson Point.

In one boat were Michael, Taz, and I; in the other boat Peter, Dan, and Mike. We spoke little as we headed out across the mill pond, pulling hard through the tide rip, where the water was still rising and flowing in, then hugging the coastline down the reach to Johnson Point and Hobbit Island. A flock of long-tailed ducks, their pointed tail feathers making blades of shadow against the bright ripples of the water, took to flight in front of us. All was gray and silver, from the early morning sky, misting rain, the shifting sea, Michael’s paddle dipping and flashing in front of me. We headed due west to Duck Cove. The wind was in our favor with very little chop hitting us broadside: a gift on what can be a difficult crossing when the wind is strong. 

As we entered the cove we could see a small huddle of figures on the beach and a black van parked on the dirt road above them. Jennifer, who with long black hair streaked with red dye, long black skirt and coat, and dark lipstick was my very image of an undertaker, stepped down the pebbled beach to greet us. She kept saying, “This is so cool. I’ve never seen a funeral anything like this.” It was hard to know how to respond: This was the peak moment of her profession, this passing of the body, while for the rest of us it was the final moment of something too enormous to absorb. But rather than feeling her enthusiasm inappropriate, I appreciated it. In fulfilling what we knew were Bill’s wishes, it was easy to forget how unusual it was to create a funeral that included paddling a body for miles in a handmade casket by canoe catamaran across a stretch of ocean in winter. I felt a little lighter as I paused to consider the audacity of our task.

We lashed the canoes together at the shore, then gathered around her car where Bill’s body lay. 

Bill’s body was enclosed in a shiny black body bag with a tag that read, “Made in China.” I think we were all having the same thought: how Bill would have hated that synthetic generic material. We had a Pendleton wool blanket we wanted to wrap around him: the one that he kept on his bed and which was woven with an image from his favorite artist, Inuit painter Kenojuak Ashevak. He always said that her art made him happy; even on the grayest of winter days when his yurt didn’t let in much light, he would turn and look at her art on his wall with its deep oranges and yellows and immediately feel a brightening in his mood. We put the blanket inside the casket to line it, then put the pine box and the body bag next to one another on the frozen gravel road.

I was afraid. I had never seen the dead body of someone I loved. When Jennifer opened the body bag I felt my chest heave with a mixture of grief and panic. His head had fallen back, his mouth open and lips slack because his dentures were gone. But when we lifted him from the road and placed him gently on the blanket inside the wooden box, wrapping him from both sides, it was like picking up an empty white shell on the beach, unbroken, but no longer animated with what lived inside. He was naked, vulnerable, elemental. Something broke free from my heart at that moment; to join with the raw grief I had been carrying came a sense that Bill’s spirit was at peace and among us, that he was watching us and approving of how we were taking his body home, how we were working together and loving one another and bravely picking up the pieces that had fallen. I saw that his body was unharmed by the accident, and thought about how he had not had to suffer the indignity of sickness or frailty or the intervention of hospitals that he so dreaded in old age. It was too soon, but it was okay. We would all be okay. 

We carried the casket to the boats and lashed it firmly to the crossbeams so that it was parallel and centered between the canoes. For a long moment we all stood there in silence, as the casket rocked gently on the waves lapping beneath the boats, the new wood bright against the dark surface of the sea.

Then we pushed off, making our way through the soft salt ice toward the open water. Halfway across the cove Michael flipped a frond of seaweed onto the casket. Small waves stroked the bottom of the box between the boats and once in a while a larger one hit hard and washed over to where I was kneeling, paddling in the center with the casket against my left shoulder. A weak sun came through the clouds and shimmered a straight path east across the water in front of us. We turned up the long finger of water east of Johnson Point, the body of water Bill had named Dickinsons Reach after his favorite poet. We began to see his homeland, dark firs lining the shore. It seemed to me that even the wave-washed rocks and crowds of shoreline trees were bearing witness to the passing of this man, all his loved and known and named things looking back at us as we passed: Hobbit Island, Rosy Ness, Lunch Rock, Moose Snare Cove, Proctors Point.

A strong tailwind pushed us along in surges, our six paddles in sync, no sound but the water breaking and splashing. I sensed more than saw that Dan and Taz, the two men who came closest to being Bill’s sons, were standing now as they paddled the stern behind me, as Bill had always done. They stroked the water with Bill’s long handmade paddles, eyes looking into the distance, like raftsmen guiding a riverboat. My breath caught in my throat. 

When we came to the tide rip, the passage throat that separates Bill’s two-hundred-acre tidal pond from the reach and the open ocean, we paused at the threshold, drifting for a while in silence on the slack tide. Ahead, across the pond, people would be gathering on the beach for his final passing through. A seal came up for a quick glance at us, then dipped his head, and as if his nod were a signal of recognition, we all picked up our paddles. The dark tongue of water delivered us, the sea inside the salt pond suddenly calm.

Soon we could see the smoke and bright smudge of a fire, sad faces, people holding each other in small groups, bundled in the damp cold. We came in and touched the gravel gently with our bows. Almost not a word was spoken as we unlashed the casket and laid it on the beach above the fire. In turns, the twenty or so people gathered to carry him, up past the summer kitchen, across the narrow bridge over the stream, and up the long hill to his home—what he called the Library Yurt. We carried him through the bottom of his yurt where his woodshop and wood supply for the next seven years was curing, then along the trail past the last yurt he built, a little study yurt for his old age, the lumber still bright and the door unfinished, and into the patch of maples to his grave. 

For two hours we shared memories. Many addressed their words directly to Bill, looking down at the bright yellow casket in the earth. Mike thanked Bill for always offering him encouragement to try and live a different way, out of the mainstream. Others spoke of his lasting influence on them around the idea of democratic design, of living with intention and grace, of trying to make the world a better place, of his sense of beauty and also his wit. On the casket people placed poems and letters, children laid the drawings they had made for him that morning. Michael read a Dickinson quote: “This world is such a little place, just the red in the sky before the sun rises, so let us keep fast hold of hands, that when the birds begin, none of us is missing.”

We packed the thick earth around the coffin, mounding it up until the final layer of peat and moss and decaying leaves. We sat in the smoke and sparks of the fire that we had started behind the grave. The kids poked in the coals with long sticks. We pried the clay from our boots and held our frozen hands over the warm flames. A light rain began to fall. 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from A Man Apart, by Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.

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