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‘Return to sender’: Casket proclaims life journey

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — Retired Southern Baptist missionary Patricia Stooksbury wanted everyone to know her life’s journey. She had it printed plainly on her pine shipping-crate-modeled casket.

“Return to Sender.” “To: Heaven thru Jesus Christ.” “This end up.” “Fragile.”

John Green, pastor of Wallace Memorial Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., described the casket as unique and unlike anything he’d ever seen.

“I was so impressed because it was such an interesting way to share about her faith,” Green told Baptist Press today (May 9). “Everyone recognizes a shipping crate is sending you to another destination. That’s the story she was telling, even in her death — the story she was telling all throughout her life, which is that through faith in Christ we can have another home where we’ll spend eternity.”

Stooksbury, of Powell, Tenn., returned to her eternal home April 29 at age 70. Her journey was recounted and celebrated May 3 at Wallace Memorial Baptist Church, named in 1953 for William Wallace, a medical missionary to China for 17 years until his death at the hands of the communists in 1951.

At Stooksbury’s funeral, the custom-built casket was front and center. By then, many friends and family members had signed the casket with well wishes.

“God speed.” “See you on the other side.” “Thank God for missionaries.”

The International Mission Board commissioned Stooksbury for the mission field in 1976. She spent more than 36 years spreading the Gospel, first as a Journeyman in Ecuador, then as a missionary to Costa Rica and Bolivia. She took medical leave in 2010, returning to the U.S. with pulmonary hypertension and stage 3 kidney failure.

She commissioned her casket in 2014 from Stevens Mortuary in Knoxville, the Knoxville News Sentinel wrote at the time.

“I think it’s appropriate for the occasion,” the News Sentinel quoted her as saying. “I want those at my funeral to notice my witness. I am going back to God, so I had them put ‘return to sender’ on top.

“On the sides, in English and Spanish, it says ‘To Heaven [thru] Jesus Christ,’ because it is because of Him and what He did that I can get there.”

Friends who spoke at her funeral, including her Knoxville pastor Mark Sasser, said she relished heaven.

“Here’s what I learned about Pat over the years that I’ve known her — she was ready to go,” said Sasser, pastor of Callahan Baptist Church. “She was ready to go. She had made her preparation.”

Stooksbury accepted her call to missions while a teenage member of Wallace Memorial Baptist, under the tutelage of former and longtime pastor Jim McCluskey. She joined Callahan Baptist after retiring from the mission field.

Retired Southern Baptist missionaries Carter and Charlotte Davis, longtime friends of Stooksbury, also noted her eagerness for heaven.

“Why isn’t the Lord calling me home?” she asked Carter Davis two months before her death, Davis said at the funeral. Davis didn’t know what to tell her, he said, other than God still had use for her on earth.

Bringing greetings from IMB to Stooksbury’s survivors, Davis read from Ecclesiastes 7:1.

“A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth (NIV),” Davis said. “That’s the way Patricia viewed death, something to behold and celebrate. Patricia, we love you and we miss you. We return you to sender.”