By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
PONTOTOC – A twisting, turning destructive force tore into Dr. Forrest Tutor’s home, Lochinvar, in 2001.
“I went to the back door and I swore that was tornado weather,” the 84-year-old said. “I stood for 10 or 15 minutes. I didn’t hear it. I saw it getting worse, rather than better.”
It was classified as an F4 tornado, and it killed five people in Pontotoc on Feb. 24 that year. Tutor and his family survived the maelstrom, but the house that had stood since 1836 took a nasty hit.
“Out in the yard, tons of it, tons of garbage,” Tutor said.
But it wasn’t all garbage.
There was wreckage from 170-year-old cedar trees, as well as one of the largest bodock trees in Mississippi. Black walnuts were splintered on the ground, and old pine timbers from Lochinvar were scattered here and there.
“I knew I had some mighty fine timber,” Tutor said, “and thought I needed to do something worthwhile with it.”
The result is covered with a white sheet and sits in Lochinvar’s basement. Tutor decided he’d use some of that quality wood to have his casket built.
When the time comes, he’ll be buried in a black walnut and pine coffin with bodock pegs and a cross made of cedar.
“I just forget about it being down there,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me.”
Tutor’s idea spread, but not very far. He inspired his friend and hunting buddy, Jacque Prather, 78, of Tupelo, to have his own coffin constructed.
“Dr. Tutor gave me the wood I made mine with. I really appreciate it,” Prather said. “I thought about it a while before I did it.”
Prather’s casket was made from red cedar, and it’s in his basement, ready when needed.
“It’s supposed to be plenty big enough for me,” he said. “I’ve lost weight since it was made.”
Terry Walton, 53, of Pontotoc, was working on the reconstruction of Lochinvar when Tutor approached him about turning his project into reality.
“I thought he was nuts,” Walton said, laughing.
Tutor got down to business, describing what he wanted. Walton created a plan in his head and went to work.
“We talked about using a little bit of everything that we had,” Walton said. “It came out pretty good.”
Prather took the red cedar to his brother-in-law, George McGreger, 75, in Booneville.
“He has all kinds of wood-working tools,” Prather said. “He has Parkinson’s disease, so he’s limited on how much he can do. He’ll pick up a hammer and, sure enough, the shaking goes away.”
McGreger said Prather mentioned the possibility of building a casket several months before the wood arrived.
“From my brother-in-law, you come to expect something like that,” McGreger said.
Prather wanted a casket like the ones he’d seen in Western movies, a “head and toes” job. McGreger found plans in a catalog.
“It didn’t take too long, really,” McGreger said. “I don’t know the exact length of time, but being retired, I don’t keep up with time much, unless the clock is ticking on a game I might be watching.”
The two builders don’t expect to construct more coffins. Walton said Tutor’s casket is “my first and only,” and McGreger said, “I’ll just leave my family enough money to buy me one.”
Prather has a sheet of paper with instructions for his family. Elvis Presley’s “Peace in the Valley” and “My Way” will be performed at his sendoff, along with Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Folks will need to clear a way through his cluttered basement to haul out the coffin.
“It’s not all that heavy. It weighs about 100 pounds, maybe 150, something like that,” Prather said. “One person could pick it up if they could get a hold of it right, but you can’t get a hold of something that big by yourself.”
Tutor’s casket weighs more than Prather’s, so it’ll require a sturdy team to get it out of the basement, which isn’t far from its final resting place. Members of the Gordon family, who built Lochinvar, are buried in a small cemetery on the property.
“I told my wife I want to be buried in this coffin over there in the cemetery,” he said.
According to Prather, it was natural in the old days for people to pre-build caskets and keep them stored in the barn until needed.
In having their coffins made, Tutor and Prather acknowledged the most inescapable fact of life, but don’t mistake that for a hurry toward the inevitable.
“I hope it’s a long while before I need it,” Tutor said.
“I hope the worms eat mine before then,” Prather said. “I’m not in a rush.”