Somehow, in the end, it seems fitting that the giant pine tree that brought Gilbert Becker’s family so much joy will carry the Blue Springs father to his final rest Saturday.
The 75-year-old pine sat close by in the neighbor’s yard. In their youth, Becker’s four sons used to play, climb and tumble from its branches.
It was home for their tree house.
And once, at Christmas, they lopped off part of a mighty limb that had been knocking at their chimney, dragged it inside and decorated it as their Christmas tree.
“It has a lot of history,” said Suzanne Becker, 67, who next July would have celebrated 50 years of marriage to the rugged guy, a retired line worker for General Motors, a man who loved the outdoors, camping and his next home project as much as anything else in life.
But on Monday, Gilbert Becker died. He was 74.
Standing 5 feet 8 inches tall and muscular, he was strong until the end. Only weeks before the ravages of 10 stents in nearly as many years had finally worn out his heart, he was still performing his famed exercises, starting with a ladder propped against his house.
“He would take a 5-gallon bucket full of water and hold it in one arm and climb the ladder and put the bucket in his other arm and climb down. He would do that 25 times in one day to keep his strength up,” his wife said. “He did that until he went into the hospital.”
Then, after the hospital, Gilbert Becker went into hospice. As time passed and it became clear the end was near, his son Jeff presented his family and father with an idea.
The family had always loved camping. The more isolated and rugged, the better.
“When all my brothers and I look back,” said Jeff Becker, 45, “that was our premier moments in childhood, the times of going camping. And if they could go camping somewhere where there were no campgrounds, access to woods, that is where we were going. It was 90 percent of the family vacations.”
He presented the idea to his dad: How about a “natural” or “green” burial? They’re a trend nationwide.
No embalming. No concrete vaults. No metals or plastics. No fancy coffins. All biodegradable.
Gilbert Becker had long joked with his family that when it came time to go, he wanted nothing fancy. A native of Lubbock, Texas, he loved the cowboy creed and way of life.
“‘Don’t do anything for me,’” Jeff recalled his dad saying often. “‘Just take me and put me in a ditch. Just put me in a pine box.’”
Jeff found a place in Rocheport, Mo.: Green Acres Cemetery, a wooded, natural burial site on the grounds of a graveyard that in the 1800s was a burial place for slaves. Four years ago, it became a natural burial cemetery. Pine boxes are the standard, although one woman buried her mother there in a shroud made from her favorite blanket.
The Becker sons took their father out to see it.
“It was just woods — peaceful, peaceful woods,” Suzanne Becker said. “He immediately loved it. He was so excited. He was in a wheelchair. He had been in bed for four weeks. My boys literally lifted his wheelchair over some logs and he just sat there and he said, ‘This is where I want to spend eternity.’ He spoke about it the rest of the time he was alive.”
Then came the question of the coffin.
Suzanne Becker looked in her backyard. The old pine tree had been taken down two years before. Her husband, never one to throw away anything, had hauled the trunk, weighing hundreds of pounds, measuring 32 inches in diameter, into their yard.
“Why don’t you take one of those dang big logs from the backyard and hollow it out?” Suzanne Becker said.
It was supposed to be a joke. But the more they thought about it, it seemed right to everyone, even their dad. He’s kept a wood stove. He loved to use an ax.
So together, led by Jeff, a sculptor, the sons worked on it for weeks, slicing off the top as a lid, using chain saws and axes and other tools to hollow out the inside.
As recently as Friday, they looped the handles, made of hemp.
The funeral will be about 11 a.m. Saturday. Jeff, along with his twin brother, Jay, and the two older boys, Ben, 48, and Steve, 47, will carry their father, clothed in his overalls and work shirt, in the log coffin.
Simple. Natural. Gilbert Becker’s way.