Now, children, let's build my coffin

9th February 2007 at 00:00
A Teacher With Only Months To Live Is Using Her Situation To Reconcile Pupils With Death

Teachers might feel somewhat uneasy if children began to build and decorate a coffin for them.

But Eri van den Biggelaar, who is terminally ill, says she has been touched that her pupils have made her coffin their project - and she displays it proudly in class.

The 40-year-old, who works at a primary school in the Dutch village of Someren, is suffering from aggressive, proliferating cervical cancer and has been told she only has a few months to live.

When she received the devastating diagnosis, she went to her colleague Eric van Dijk, a crafts teacher, and asked him to build her coffin. Mr Van Dijk, a designer in his spare time, suggested that her pupils could make it instead.

"Life and death belong together," Mrs Van den Biggelaar said. "Where I will go is much nicer than this world."

Her pupils, aged 4 to 11, have worked on the project for weeks, sawing more than 100 narrow boards then gluing them together. Only the lid has yet to be finished.

None of the children has said they felt traumatised by the project or that it was creepy.

Some even play in the coffin, climbing inside and pretending to be submarine captains. But the pupils are clear that it is not a toy.

In the liberal Netherlands, learning about death is not seen as morbid, as it is in some countries, and the reaction from the pupils' parents has been positive.

But in neighbouring Belgium, the case has caused an uproar: bereavement therapists are worried that pupils will have difficulty dealing with their teacher's death.

Mrs Van den Biggelaar said the controversy showed how necessary it was to tell children about death, mourning and pain. When her grandfather died, she had felt lonely as nobody spoke to her.

"As a little child, I stood with flowers at his grave and did not know why people were crying."

By being open about her own death, the courageous teacher hopes to prevent that from happening to her pupils and children.

The Natural Death Centre in London, which helps people arrange their funerals, said it would support any British teachers who wanted to take similar action.

Mike Jarvis, the centre's director, said: "You would have to take careful consideration of the psychological effects. But we regret the way that death is seen as a taboo, and as something that only happens in institutions."

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