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DIY coffin builders hard at work on final resting places

In October 2010, a woman named Marilyn Bader drove from Grand Marais in northern Minnesota to her home in downtown St. Paul. She was actually hoping that a cop would pull her over during the five hour drive. And who could blame her? It was Halloween and Ms. Bader had a freshly made coffin in her car.

“I was laughing and thinking I should go really fast so a cop will stop me,” says Bader, a very youthful sixty-something.

She had to put both the backseat and the front passenger seat down to get the casket into the car. Still, Bader could barely close the car’s doors. Her right shoulder was right up against the pine box, which extended to the dashboard.

But rest assured. There was no corpse in the coffin because it is one day going to be used by Bader herself, who has no plans to kick the bucket anytime soon. Ever since reading a Twin Cities newspaper account of a course titled “Bury Yourself In Your Work: Build Your Own Casket,” she wanted to go the DIY route for her casket. After her grown kids offered to spring for the tuition, she spent three full days at the North House Folk School, which is in Grand Marais 40 minutes from the Canadian border, and built herself a coffin.

As it turned out, when I finally reached the course’s instructor on the phone last month, it was Halloween. Forty-five year-old Randy Schnobrich, a professional woodworker in Grand Marais, told me that he’s noticed people are paying more attention to green burial options in recent years and are thinking outside of the box. “Pun not intended,” he was quick to add.

Coffin-building teacher Randy Schnobrich and one of his students, Carla

Schnobrich’s course costs $700 ($470 materials + $225 tuition) and participants spend three days constructing a coffin out of inch-thick cabinet grade pine. The caskets are made mainly with hand tools (planes and saws).

“You could obviously just use machinery and blast right through [the project] but that’s kind of not the essence of the school,” Schnobrich explains. The North House Folk School was inspired by Scandinavian “folkeshoskoles” begun in Denmark during the mid-1800s. At North House, people from all over the Midwest, and indeed, all over the U.S. and other countries, receive instruction in basketry, boatbuilding, fiber arts, toolmaking, woodworking, and other “traditional crafts of the northern hemisphere.” In addition to the casket course, Schnobrich has taught or will soon teach courses on how to build a Thoreau cabin, a Scandinavian-style kicksled, doors, cabinets, and a doghouse. Another instructor at North House teaches students how to build their own wooden skis.

“A lot of people cringe at the idea of building their own casket,” Schnobrich says. “They see it as morbid. They think, ‘Boy, that must be kind of weird.’ But for some folks, they want to have a hand in, an intimate connection with the end of their life. Instead of just being a bystander, you can be involved in at least this aspect of your death.”

Marilyn Bader’s friends have seen her casket in her bedroom and said, “Isn’t that a little weird, having your casket in your bedroom?” But Bader, a widow who makes her living as a health care researcher, shrugs off such talk. “It’s something I made,” she says. “I’m proud of it.”

Three full days may seem like a long time to build a coffin, but Schnobrich spends a lot of time going over safety. Another reason for the lengthy build time is that dovetailed joints are used in the casket’s assembly.

Although the course fee includes all materials, one woman who took the course provided her own lumber. Planks from a pecan tree milled on her parents property were used.

“Her parents were kind of set on her using the tree in this manner,” Schnobrich says.

Handles, which are a little more stressed than other parts of the coffin, are usually made from birch 1 X 2′s but one of the casket-makers wanted log handles for her casket. A retired teacher in her mid-60s named Carla made her coffin shortly before she died of cancer. Carla was undergoing chemotherapy before the coffin-making class. Schnobrich said she was so fatigued that he set up a futon in the workshop so Carla could nap when she needed to. At times, she had so little strength that Schnobrich had to help her push screws into the casket with a cordless drill.

“She was extremely motivated and wanted to do as much as she could,” Schnobrich recalls.

And so, on the day that Carla told him that she wanted log handles on her coffin, Schnobrich spontaneously drove to a friend’s house nearby to cut down a couple of young spruce trees that were two inches in diameter. Carla peeled the bark off the branches and used them as handles.

“She was pretty pleased,” says the woodworker, “because a round form would be comfortable for someone’s hand to grip.”

Marilyn Bader did something similar. Last summer, she went to an ash grove near Clear Lake, South Dakota where she grew up and cut a branch off a fallen tree. She will carve it into a cross that she will glue onto the lid of her casket. Bader also plans to create a branch and leaf design on the edge of the coffin’s lid by applying color stain and using a wood-burning tool.

The coffins can be used as furniture before they are used for burial. Most people use them as a bookshelf or coffee table. Bader plans to do the former but hasn’t gotten around to adding shelves yet. She still has to put in wood filler in some portions of the dovetailed joints.

“My casket isn’t perfect, but neither is life,” she says.

Schnobrich cautions his students that there is a small window of time after a person dies that you can bury them without embalming. And he says that people who build their own caskets need to be aware that in some states and localities transportation of a dead body must be done by a funeral home. Survivors of the recently deceased are required in some places to file a form with local authorities that pinpoints just where on private property a loved one is being buried.

Schnobrich the woodworker is well aware of the political implications of DIY casket construction.

“If this became a big movement and people start mail-ordering pine boxes and saying ‘The hell with the $8,000 casket, give me the $250 box from eBay,’ it might affect someone’s bottom line a little bit,” he says.

Schnobrich says he expects to teach the coffin-building class next in February 2012.

Casketplans.com, a Canadian company, sells coffin-making plans for between $40 and $45, as well as kits that range from $700 to $1,700. Their plans allow DIYers to build caskets that double as a billiards table, an entertainment center, and even a sofa.

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Jon Kalish

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter, podcast producer and newspaper writer. He’s reported for NPR for more than 30 years.


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