55: Should We Bury You Head First or Feet First?
The story of the coffin that screws into the ground
In December, 2009, a patent was issued for a coffin designed to be screwed into the ground rather than lowered into a grave. This unusual and slightly morbid idea got some mentions around the internet just as I was in the middle of my Inventor Portraits project. So I reached out to the inventor. And that’s how I met Donald Scruggs, who became the 30th inventor in my series.
You’ll be shocked to learn that Don got the idea for a screw-in coffin while drinking with friends. As he described the lightbulb moment to me:
I was with some friends having a couple of drinks and one of them mentioned he had to go talk to some people about an automatic grave digger, which meant a huge amount of dirt removal. And I said, "Why don't we just make a big large carrot shaped thing with threads around it and screw it into the ground?"
And an idea was born.
Don was already an inventor. He had designed industrial brushes for street sweepers and car washes, and a version of a dual-flush toilet. But Don wanted to learn to do his own patents. And when you’re learning to do something new, sometimes it’s good to have an actual project to work on. So Don used his screw-in coffin — properly known as the easy-inter burial system — as the subject of his first DIY patent.
Don’s design has a lot of variations.
The coffins can simply be installed vertically, with plaques or iconography on top replacing tombstones:
They can be installed along a pond in the cemetery, with their tops sticking up out of the water:
They can be stacked horizontally on a hillside, or diagonally alongside a walkway for easy viewing:
They can be topped with handles so they can be manually screwed in:
Or you could use this big machine to screw the coffin into the ground:
I would probably choose the machine. I don’t think a funeral should have a “manual labor” portion where invited guests have to work up a sweat to get you into the ground. Or maybe that would be some sort of honor, like being a pallbearer?
Don even built a life-size model to envision what a screw-in coffin might actually look like:
Of course, the coffin needs to be made out of a material strong enough not to break while being twisted into the ground. You don’t want Aunt Agnes spilling out of her coffin in the middle of her funeral. To help prevent that, Don also received a patent for a grave site thawing, softening, and boring apparatus so at least hard earth won’t be as big of a problem.
Don sometimes would hear protests from people saying that you can’t legally bury someone so shallow. They have to be six feet under. To which he counters that mausoleums are full of dead people who are not six feet underground, so how do you explain that? Well, I did a little, uh, digging, and found that the rules vary from state to state. So before you consider being screwed into the ground, please consult your local burial laws.
I made a video about Don and his invention. Take a look!
I filmed b-roll with Don at a graveyard but we did the interview and additional photos in his home, which has some fun stuff in it. Since it’s not really relevant to his invention, I’ve never really gone into this anywhere before, but let’s take a look at what’s in his house:
This room has a lot of personality.
Don must be an Australophile, with his kangaroo and koala crossing signs, and what looks like a novelty “Australia” license plate peaking out by the chandelier.
Elsewhere on his walls, there’s a political cartoon about Teddy Roosevelt, a sketch in the style of the old masters depicting a woman reclining, and an airplane clock. Shelves hold some decoy ducks, a vintage-looking rocking horse, and he has knick-knacks that look like they were removed from a bar including a dart board and old beer signs that would fit in just as well in a dorm room.
The center of the room quite obviously has a big game table, and there’s a prominent jukebox and cool-looking player piano behind Don.
On top of the player piano he has a display of piano scrolls with different songs:
Do you recognize any of those titles? Some of them are still classics! I recognize a couple like Sweet Georgia Brown and I’m Henry VIII, I Am (which notes on the box that it’s a “novelty song”). If I squint my brain just right, I can imagine it playing on the piano.
Don said of the piano:
I bought the player piano about 40 years ago, and then had it all overhauled. And as you know, player pianos are run by vacuum, so you have each key with a little vacuum bellows on it. And I started acquiring the tape — oh, they're not tape, they're paper rolls with little holes — and as each roll goes over it relieves the vacuum and makes the key play. It's from 1900. And I was lucky enough to buy a 1908 vacuum unit made by the same company that runs. Last time it ran, it sparked and things. And I didn't want a piano fire on my hands. But it works. And it's fun.
I had no idea player pianos are run by vacuum. Now I want to see inside a player piano and see how it works. Turns out that’s an easy thing to find on the internet. Here’s a video of someone opening up his player piano and showing all the parts inside. This is really neat:
Don’s game room also had a pool table and a vintage stove (I think that’s what it is?). But I only have one photo taken on that side of the room:
This concludes our look at the screw-in coffin and Inventor #30. And it brings to a close another edition of the newsletter. Thanks for joining me.
See you next time!