As It Happens

Her dad suddenly started building his own coffin — so she made a film about it

When Cailleah Scott-Grimes first found out her father was building his own coffin, she didn't know what to make of it. So he decided to process it through film. Rockin' The Coffin is now streaming on CBC Gem and the Toronto Hot Docs film festival.

Rockin' The Coffin by Cailleah Scott-Grimes premiering at the Toronto Hot Docs film festival

Ron Grimes of Waterloo, Ont., holds up the coffin he built during the pandemic —now the subject of a documentary short by his daughter. (Submitted by Cailleah Scott-Grimes)

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When Cailleah Scott-Grimes first found out her father was building his own coffin, she didn't know what to make of it.

She was especially taken aback when she learned he'd laid down in his Waterloo, Ont., backyard and asked her mother to measure the length of his body with his cowboy boots on, so he would know just how much wood he needed.

"I really did sort of think it was a joke at first. And when I realized it was a serious project, I didn't really know how to react," the Toronto filmmaker told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"I knew I wanted to have a conversation with him. But because I didn't know how to initiate that, I actually started with drawing. So I, you know, pulled up a blank page and kind of just let my imagination run free."

Those drawings became the foundation for a series of animations woven through her new documentary short, Rockin' The Coffin, which is now streaming on CBC Gem and premieres Thursday at the Toronto Hot Docs online film festival.

This illustration by Cailleah Scott-Grimes shows her father's legs and cowboy booted-feet as her mother measures him in the backyard for his coffin. (Cornsilk Productions)

The film intersperses those animations with intimate, black-and-white footage of her and her father, Ron Grimes, having a candid and emotionally charged conversation about death. 

Scott-Grimes says it's par for the course for her and father, who have been making art and films together since she was a child. 

Her dad would often point the video camera at her and her brother Bryn when they were small, and ask them what he called "big questions" — things like, "What happens when you die?"

"It's kind of a way of connecting ever since I was a little kid," she said. "And so we thought: You know what? This feels like another time when we better get the cameras rolling."

Rockin' The Coffin features intimate, close-up footage of Scott-Grimes, left, and her father, right, discussing death and morbid family memories. (Cornsilk Productions)

The pair filmed each other during their conversation, passing the camera back and forth as they explored childhood memories of Scott-Grimes and her brother burying a squirrel in the backyard, and discussed Grimes' motivations for building a coffin in the midst of a deadly global pandemic.

The conversation was difficult at times. Tears streamed down Scott-Grimes' face as she talked about the terror that grips her when she imagines losing her father — especially early on in the pandemic, when he first started making his coffin and she wasn't able to see him in person. 

"I thought maybe, you know, as an artist that my sort of practice would shut down during COVID and that I would be completely disconnected from the family. And that's kind of the worst thing I can imagine," she said.

"And instead, it was just this incredible way to go on sort of a deep, deep dive and revisit all of these things, too, from our childhood in the way that we used to, you know, also talk about death and hard topics throughout the course of our lives. So I think it was a very transformative project for everyone in the family."

Grimes, a professor emeritus of ritual studies, is pictured here holding his daughter when she was just a kid. (Submitted by Cailleah Scott-Grimes)

It's exactly the kind of conversation Grimes had hoped to spark with his coffin project.

"In the beginning, it was just something to do with my hands," he said. "And, of course, during COVID you have to think about, well, what else am I doing? Is this for me? Who is this for?" he said.

"It didn't bother me to think that I might die, but it did bother me to think that Cailleah or her brother or her mom might die."

His daughter wasn't the only person alarmed by his unconventional woodworking, he said. While working on it in his driveway, he said he would overhear his neighbours "talking about the fact that crazy old Grimes is over there building a coffin."

"At first, they were totally freaked by it, and gossiped about it," he said.

"But eventually I would call them across the road and say, 'Well, I'm building a coffin. It's not for me. It's not for you. But it's something to think about death.' And so often they would stand there and we'd have these conversations about death."

But in the end, Grimes will not spend eternity in a coffin of his own making. "We just ran out of wood, so we made small ones," he said. "We have a dog-size and a cat-size."

Asked if he'll ever see it through and build a coffin big enough for him and his cowboy boots, he said: "Wood is very expensive these days, so I probably will not make it."

But he'll always have the film, he said. And more importantly, the intimate conversation with his daughter.

"It was very meaningful," he said. "This brought my daughter and me together and, in fact, had brought the whole family together — my wife Susan and my son Bryn, who plays the soundtrack for the film."

Rockin' The Coffin is streaming at Hot Docs from April 29 to May 9.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Cailleah Scott-Grimes and Ron Grimes produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle. 

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