For 15 months, the Rev. Matthew Studer cared for his ailing father, Vern Studer, at Vern's home. The pair talked about many matters during that time, including the particulars of Vern's funeral service and burial.
A local insurance agent, Vern had suffered a stroke and Matt, who lives and pastors a church in Hermiston, enabled him to stay at home for a time.
As Vern's eldest child, Matt said, "I am the son that he made swear to build a pine box to bury him in."
And thus began an incredible journey. "The build was amazing and went way beyond my expectations in terms of how it impacted everyone and in terms of how it turned out," Matt said.
"My father had a wonderful sense of humor and was very intelligent. He could talk to anyone in any class of society. He brought a passion and intensity to everything he did, which could be very difficult be around.
"But he was all about excellence. He taught me about brotherhood and the truth and the cost of such a notion."
With those lessons firmly implanted, Matt listened when Vern said he wanted the burial to be simple. "He wanted a wake, not a funeral. He wanted us to celebrate, not cry. We did, for nearly two weeks, for those of us on the build."
Matt conceived the construction of Vern's casket and considered doing it himself while his dad was still alive, because he felt pressured to carry out Vern's wishes. Instead, he asked his brother Jonathan Studer, and four brothers-in-law, to help. Two were able to participate.
At Matt's request, brother-in-law Tony Tabor took the lead on the actual design and process.
"He did a great job, but all of us contributed to the actual box design at some point as we went along."
Tony ordered the materials on Feb. 18, the day Vern died. Matt fetched the wood on Feb. 19 and the work began Feb. 20.
"We were done with everything but the rope handles by Monday morning (Feb. 22)."
The box is a basic rectangle made of 2- by 6-inch tongue-and-groove pine with a hemlock lid and trim. It bears a simple stain/varnish coating, Matt said.
Brother-in-law Corey Schmidt of Walla Walla was in charge of the cross engraved on the lid. He routed out the design, then gave the image texture with a Dremel tool.
Vern saw himself being transported via a pickup truck, so, for the funeral cortege, Matt took the simple casket in his rig to the home of his mother, Jeannette Studer.
The completed container, dubbed "The Box" by its creators, was placed on the deck at her house near Pioneer Park. Prior to their divorce, Vern and Jeannette had been married for 42 years.
"We sat there for 10 hours and visited and enjoyed one another. And we drank of Vern's favorite adult beverage - tequila," Matt recalled.
Inside the lid, they wrote notes to Vern: how much they loved and missed him, and said goodbye. It was Matt's idea to write those messages.
Late on Feb. 22, Matt took the box to Vern and wife Arlene Sharp Studer's home. Vern and Arlene had been married twice, and Matt said he performed the wedding ceremony the second time around.
The next-to-the-last stop for the casket was Munselle-Rhodes Funeral Home in Milton-Freewater, Matt said. Vern's body was placed in the box the morning of Feb. 23.
"I went and got the box at 1:15 p.m. and carried what was left of my dad and that box in my truck to the final resting spot, which dad also picked out. It was a beautiful spot," Matt said.
Matt, a pastor at Living Water Foursquare Church in Hermiston, also officiated at Vern's graveside service Feb. 23 in Milton-Freewater Cemetery.
Vern Studer was born July 24, 1932, in Arkansas City, Kan. His family moved to a dairy in the Coeur d'Alene area and he was an all-state high school football player.
The rough-and-tumble guy joined the U.S. Navy where he led an underwater demolitions team.
"He was a frogman and could hold his breath under water for 5 minutes. He was also shot out of the submarine through the torpedo chamber," Matt said. "He was like a superhero back in the day."
Vern graduated from the University of Idaho with a bachelor's in animal science/animal husbandry. In 1974 he made a career change from the cattle business to become an insurance agent.
He built the Vern Studer Agency for Farmer's Insurance on South Second Avenue in Walla Walla.
Vern's survivors include his wife, Arlene Studer, at home; six children, Sue Smith and Juli Schmidt of Walla Walla; Laurie Fox of Kennewick; Matt Studer of Hermiston; Jon Studer of Newman, Calif., and Lisa Tabor of Walla Walla; brother H.C. Studer of Bonners Ferry, Idaho; 29 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
The Studers held a wake on Feb. 27 - "and it was a blast. Lots of people got to be together and remember tons of stuff about my dad."
"The entire build was a joy. We had more fun and took more pride in doing a last final thing for dad. I have total closure and no regrets.
"I am proud of how we sent dad off; we did him proud. I highly recommend this way of saying goodbye."
Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at email@example.com or afternoons at 526-8313.