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Planning for the end; awaiting the beginning

Marilyn Myers chats with good friend Ellen Manning, who rests on Marilyn’s coffin, which they have been using as a work table. Marilyn’s younger son, Boomer Ford, lounges on the bed.
[Times photos: Lisa DeJong]

By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2000

Death and life twine naturally through Marilyn Myers' days as she arranges the material details that will celebrate her return to the spiritual plane.

ST. PETERSBURG -- It looks like a beautiful coffee table, made of aromatic cedar with carved handles and a polished top.

This is Marilyn Myers' coffin. Right in the middle of her living room.

She keeps it there for two reasons. One, there's no other place in the house to store it. Two -- and more important -- why not have it out in plain view?

Why shrink from her impending death, asks Marilyn, who is 50 and has ovarian cancer. Why hide the fact that she's preparing for her passing, practicing something she calls "conscious dying?"

Marilyn is not a morbid person. Far from it.

Over the past few weeks, it has brought her great comfort to decide the details of what will happen after she dies, to make sure her funeral will be an expression of who she is and the kind of life she lived.

"This is my last creative act," she says with a contented smile.

First on her list was the coffin.

"I wanted to have a casket that was simple and beautiful and made by someone I love."

Dancing In The Twilight

As the end draws near for Marilyn Myers, who is terminally ill with ovarian cancer, she has embraced dying, finding joy where others often see despair. We are visiting her regularly for a series of conversations; you can find links previous installments here

She called her friend Greg Williams, a Kentucky woodworking artist who often exhibits at Mainsail Arts Festival in St. Petersburg.

"He was uncomfortable at first with the idea. This was his first casket."

When it was finished, another friend of Marilyn's carried the coffin to Florida in the bed of her pickup truck.

It is plain inside, with none of the standard satin lining.

"Instead, I'm going to have a huge bed of nesting materials," Marilyn says. "Cedar shavings, dried flowers and herbs, little shells and stones and crystals."

Marilyn has collected several items that are precious to her and which express her non-traditional spiritual beliefs. She asked her family to place them in the coffin with her body. They include:

A faded, oval photograph from 1910, showing Marilyn's mother in her christening dress.

A large goose wing, preserved by a friend, a symbol of the spirit's flight to freedom.

A polished brass "dorje," about the size of a toothbrush. It is used in Tibetan prayers and represents wisdom.

A small turtle shell another friend found and filled with dried sage, tiny shells and a translucent carved egg that seems to glow within. "This represents the spirit egg that will be reborn," Marilyn explains.

Marilyn's friend Courtney English sewed an unusual burial outfit, a wine-red dress in raw silk, trimmed with antique lace. Accessories are an onyx necklace and an embroidered shoulder bag filled with dried freesia blossoms.

After chemotherapy treatments took Marilyn's long brown hair, she kept her head shorn. In death she will wear a vintage beaded headpiece that makes her look like an Egyptian queen. For now, it hangs on the headboard of her bed but every once in awhile, she slips it on for fun.

Chemotherapy caused the loss of Marilyn’s long brown hair. She plans to wear this distinctive head dress when she is buried.

The largest project was planning her memorial service, which will take place at Sweet Rock Bottom, Marilyn's 200-acre farm in Tennessee.

What she envisions is a day of tears and laughter, her friends and relatives gathering to present songs, stories and poems that remind them of her. A one-room log cabin on the property will be transformed into a chapel. At a fire circle outside, people will sit and share memories.

At some point there will be a grand procession, winding through fields and across three creek beds, as Marilyn's coffin is carried to its resting place in a tiny cemetery that has been on the property for decades.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful spot," she says quietly.

Marilyn carefully chose the music for the day. It runs the gamut from Gregorian chants and opera to Emmylou Harris and the Gypsy Kings.

"First there are wistful, sad songs, then it goes into a more lively mode. It takes people from the mourning stage into a joyous celebration of life and beauty and love."

St. Petersburg artist Steve Smith designed a black-and-white, Art Deco-style invitation for the service.

"Marilyn's beloved are gathering to celebrate her spirit reunion," the card reads. "You are the beloved."

Inside, the day's activities are listed: "casket totin'. . . dirt slingin' . . . and dancin'."

When Marilyn took a turn for the worse just before New Year's and it appeared her death was imminent, the invitations were mailed to 120 people. Smith took them to the post office and hand-canceled them, taking care not to cancel over the extra "faux" stamp he designed of Marilyn's face.

Marilyn greets death without fear, viewing it as a passage as natural as birth. She has selected some items that symbolize her moving on to be placed in her casket, including a carved egg that represents a new spirit coming into being.

At the same time, Marilyn's son, Boomer Ford, went to Tennessee and, on the eve of the millennium, dug his mother's grave with the help of some friends. As they took the first shovelsful from the earth, thousands of blackbirds circled overhead, then flew away. It seemed like a good omen.

Then Marilyn rallied, and the service would wait.

Meanwhile, she has been busy compiling what she calls "The Book," a spiralbound scrapbook of her life, with old snapshots and her favorite poems, many by the Persian mystic Rumi.

The first page is Marilyn's dedication to her aunt, a free-spirited woman named Vanda who reared three sons alone after a painful divorce, then took up sculpting in a Greenwich Village loft.

"She was radiant, outspoken, unstoppable," Marilyn writes in the book. "She was my spirit mother."

When Vanda was 52 -- just two years older than Marilyn is now -- she died of ovarian cancer.

* * *

COMING TUESDAY: After a lifetime of helping others, Marilyn must practice the opposite, receiving help from her support group of caregivers.

* * *

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