The Origin of the Gamma Xi Coffin: Unraveling the Mystery

Red and yellow cheaply homemade coffin with the Greek letters Phi Kappa Tau in black on the lid, standing against a red wall. There is a window cut in the top front. and it is empty.
The Gamma Xi Coffin, an enigmatic artifact that rests in the Gamma Xi lounge, holds a significant place in the history of our Phi Kappa Tau Chapter.

Today we’ll discover the intriguing story behind the origin of the Gamma Xi Coffin, an iconic and mysterious ornament of the Phi Kappa Tau Chapter. Larry Compton, who remembers the origins of the coffin, shares its rich history and reveals the dramatic skit that led to its creation.

“I was surprised when I attended a Gamma Xi Founders Day event several years ago and heard that a lot of rumors and legends had arisen concerning the origin of the coffin that lies in the Gamma Xi lounge,” said Larry Compton.

“Some of my old brothers from the 60’s had seen the coffin and asked me where it came from. And, apparently, most of the brothers from the 80’s onward assumed it to be part of old Phi Tau lore or had some mystical significance.

Jerry Fry had heard that I knew the origin of the coffin and asked me to write about it.”

Picture of Larry Compton '66

Larry Compton '66

Charter Member of Gamma Xi

Returning to Fraternal Life and Tackling Pollution in a Skit

Larry Compton’s return from the United States Marine Corps in the fall of 1970 marked the beginning of an eventful period in his life. Eager to rejoin school and return to fraternal life, he found himself immersed in a world grappling with environmental concerns.

Larry recalls, “I returned from the Marine Corps in the fall of 1970 and returned to school and active fraternal life in 1971. Of course, at that time the environment was becoming a big issue, and pollution of our environment had become a major concern. We wanted to put together a good skit for the annual ECU talent show, the Tiger Tangles. The usual skits put on by various groups usually consisted of musical, comedy, or dance acts. We decided to tackle environmental pollution with a more dramatic flair.”

Larry and his brothers, including Butch Hollis and others, ventured into the surrounding areas to document the pollution plaguing their environment. From the smoky emissions of the local cement plant to the overflow into Sandy Creek, they captured the grim reality that was beginning to surrounded them.

“David Ratliff purchased several bolts of black fabric from Walls Family Bargain Center, and together with the help of some of the girls in Alpha Gamma Delta, stitched up several outfits of shirts and trousers. Somebody also obtained some gas masks, probably from the local National Guard. I don’t know who built the coffin, though I have heard it was built by David Ratliff. Somebody put together a soundtrack for the skit and brought me albums. I had a professional quality reel to reel tape recorder, and I recorded the songs from the different albums, and assembled them into the order we wanted for the skit,” Larry reports.

The skit evolved into a harmonious blend of photos, videos, dance, and music. Larry, armed with his professional-quality reel-to-reel tape recorder, meticulously recorded songs from various albums and carefully arranged them to enhance the dramatic impact of the performance.

Phi Kappa Tau members carrying the empty coffin at various parades.
Phi Kappa Tau members carrying the empty coffin at various parades.

The coffin built for a Tiger Tangles skit more than fifty years ago is still a fraternity fixture. It’s gone through many changes in appearance and function throughout the years, but it has remained a constant presence in chapter life, steeped in tradition, history and lore, both public and secret.

The Skit

Larry says, “I wish I could remember all of the scenes in the skit. There was definitely some dancing on stage to the backdrop of various scenes that had been photographed of the pollution that occurred around us on a daily basis. The dancers were dressed in the black costumes and were wearing gas masks. A video had also been filmed, in which a group of pallbearers dressed all in black and wearing gas masks came solemnly out of the woods into a clearing where a grave had been dug, while carrying a black coffin on their shoulders.”

According to Larry they were filming as trash was being poured into the symbolic grave to cover the coffin. “The skit ended with black clad dancers on the stage behind filmy curtains to give the appearance of smog. As the dancers slowly collapsed and died on the stage one by one, the background music was Give Me Another Hit of Fresh Air by Quicksilver Messenger Service.

The judges apparently didn’t like what they thought was hippy political activism, so we only got third place in the event. Of course, the Chi O’s with their usual cutesy dance skit won first place. I don’t remember who won second place. But everybody we talked to said Phi Taus were the winners that year no matter what the judges said. Hopefully some other brothers from that time can chime in with some other memories of the event.”