I decided to make a casket

— I have a home funeral training coming up and thought it would be nice to have a “plain pine box” to practice “casketing.” I’ve been meaning to have a casket on hand for a while now. This seemed like a good excuse to get going. So, I called my carpenter friend, Greg. He’s been offering to make one for me for years now, so he can get the practice. He was eager to help me out and is making it at cost. Good for everybody! It’s a win-win!

Here’s the challenges so far:

  1. How do we make this as “green” as possible?
  2. What size should it be (for what size person)? This requires thinking that an actual person, perhaps someone I know and love, might eventually use it. Wow – that’s a step further than I wanted to go.
  3. Where am I going to store this thing, and for that matter, will I be able to fit it in my car (a Prius)?

— Greg sent me some possible designs via email. I looked them over. I decided I wanted my mother’s opinion. Why? Well, I wondered what might appeal to her, and if it’s used for someone in our family, I want her to like it. It entered both our minds that she might be the one to use it. After all, she has said that she wants a green burial, in an environmentally friendly, simple but elegant wood casket, and she’s 84. You never know. I’m open to selling this casket to the next person who contacts me and needs one and doesn’t have time to obtain one any other way. But, barring that, it’s a good bet, given her age and desire for just such a casket, that she might be the one to use it. We decided not to go there. We decided that I just want another set of eyes on it to help me choose.

— I went over to Greg’s shop. I picked out the features I wanted, like

  • Lid attached or removable? (removable – more practical, no hinges)
  • A lid that can be opened half-way? (No! We’re not hiding anything)
  • Metal brackets, rope, or wood dowel handles on the sides? (Wood dowel so multiple people can help carry it, less metal)
  • Pine planks or plywood? (Pine planks – read on)

— At first I liked the idea of using plywood, especially since Greg had some around and it would be less expensive. But upon further investigation, I found out that, even though it is a very efficient use of the wood of the tree (the trunk is placed on a spindle and the wood is shaved off in layers right down to the core, so you don’t have the waste of making straight planks out of something that is round), the layers are fixed together using glue. And glue is toxic. So, no plywood. Besides, it’s thinner and less sturdy and the ends can’t be finished like I want. But planks will require more nails and screws. Oh, dear.

— I considered using “found” wood (wood laying around in someone’s shop, barn, garage, or yard), or “urban wood,” (from local, dead urban trees that would otherwise go into a chipper); this idea appealed to me. But my mom and I agreed that for this one-style-fits-all casket for an unknown person, we didn’t want it to look too rustic. And now we get into the root of the problem: there is no one-size-fits-all environmentally friendly casket. There’s many choices to make. And the style of the casket used for a loved one, the look and feel and decoration, not to mention size and strength, is really important! It adds to the meaning-making of the ceremony, the mourning, the honoring, and the burying of the dead. It’s really important to be able to have choice around what burial container to use. It’s helps us in our grief to think seriously about this and be able to choose a container that says something about the person that is in it.

— Here I’d been thinking that having a casket around would be a good thing, because I know that people often don’t plan ahead. And carpenters aren’t usually on-call! It would be good to have this nice casket, suitable for a green burial, stored at my house for the next person who needed one in a pinch, right? But I’m making this casket for an unknown person; I don’t know who they will be and what they would want. By necessity, I have to make one that appeals to as many people as possible. Unless my mom decides that it is for her. But she has said she doesn’t want to think of it that way. And she won’t store it at her house because she doesn’t want to look at it.

— That brings us to storage.Will my partner be willing to have it stored at our house somewhere? Does one  put it in the corner of the basement where one seldom goes so one won’t have to see it?  And would that give one the creeps if one did on occasion see it, by surprise? Maybe even knowing it was there would be creepy? But I digress. I still have some design decisions to make.

— The size: Do I make it large enough for anyone in my family (son, 6’4″, partner 6’2″ – I don’t want to go there!!! Not to mention me!)? Do I make it smaller so it’s easier for me to cart around and use for demo purposes? How deep does it need to be? How wide? First I measured Greg for width. With his arms crossed on his abdomen, 24 inches wide gives me at least an inch on each side. Ok, that’s good. Is 11 inches deep enough? And let’s go with 6 feet long. These are the interior dimensions. Then I called up my funeral director friend; he suggested 6.5 feet long and 12 inches tall. Twenty-four inches wide is good. So, that’s what we are going with. I’m tired of thinking about it! I’ll deal with carting and storage later! I just need to make some decisions and get this thing made. My home funeral training workshop is in 2 weeks.

— I want it to look nice and I want the wood to be finished on the outside. Little did I know that this is an important consideration because this casket might be stored for a long time and finishing helps keep it in good shape. We don’t want moisture creeping in and causing it to warp and mold. I live in Michigan, after all. So what kind of finish is there that is non-toxic and environmentally friendly

  • In the extraction and manufacturing process?
  • In the shipping (how far will it have to go to reach us)?
  • In the application process (off-gassing – don’t want Greg to get sick!)?
  • In the ground?

–This is getting complicated! Greg had some definite ideas, but I wanted to check with a few friends. So, I contacted Don at Piedmont Pine Coffins. He suggested a 50/50 mix of tongue oil and turpentine, and gave me the names of his preferred sources. Unfortunately, tongue oil is not made in the US, but there is a turpentine manufacturer in Georgia that used sustainable practices in extracting the turpentine from the pine trees. Who knew?

— So now Greg and I have to decide: Do we order these products from far away or do we use stuff he can get at the local store (or that he has around in his shop)? How “green” do we want to be for this prototype? And is the extraction process of the local turpentine that much different from the Georgia variety? How concerned are we with that?

— This is as far as we’ve gotten to date. Greg says he can make the box itself in a day. But the application of the “finish” is going to take up to 5 days because it requires many coats and polishing and drying. The biggest thing I’ve learned from this is that there is no one right way to do it. We’re just making the best choices we can given what our values are, what materials are available, and the time and effort we can put into it. I plan to make a muslin liner and pillow for it. What kind of issues am I going to run into in doing that???

— I’ll post a picture of the finished product when it’s done. Maybe I’ll post a picture of it in use during the mock funeral at the home funeral workshop taking place on November 20. There’s still spots if you’d like to register!

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