Baby Boomers Gravitate Towards Hand-Crafted Caskets by Independent Makers

It's a challenge to blend humility with old world grandeur. Connecticut Casket's Windsor model accomplishes that.

Does it come as a surprise to you that more people are wanting to buy old fashioned, hand-hewn caskets that look like Alexander Hamilton or Abraham Lincoln would have been buried in them? It shouldn’t. Anyone who has spent twenty-minutes in a Whole Foods check-out line holding a carton of kale juice or hemp milk knows that when a death strikes a family that eats carefully and recycles, that family will likely desire a handsome, all-wood vessel without much metal hardware. Some Baby Boomers want simplified boxes so badly, they’ll Google around for them on their own if the funeral director fails to offer them. Good for green, Jewish, Christian, secular simple burial, these usually-unlined wooden boxes are also selected by cremation families when a cardboard box just doesn’t feel like the right thing. In short, it’s official: more funeral directors and planners are befriending independent casket makers–those savvy, committed, business-minded carpenters with a padded hammer in one hand, and an inventory Excel sheet in the other.

So meet (in photo above)“The Windsor” by the Connecticut Casket Company, a 79-inch-long Eastern White Pine and Walnut coffin that blends humility with an old-fashioned grandeur to form what I think is one of the nicest handmade caskets out there right now.

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The workroom at Connecticut Caskets

Bill Covey, the casket’s designer, who’ll only sell to funeral homes, says: “The Windsor is one of those products I just can’t stop touching. The smooth finish of the tung oil on clear pine sends a tingle down my arm that causes me to spend a lot of time inspecting each one before it goes out to a funeral home. It’s my favorite casket and the only one we have used within our own family since its creation. It’s what I want to be buried in.” Almost 40 man hours of work go into it, he says. Retail price is surprisingly reasonable and depends upon funeral home mark-up.

img_4350Another casket maker near New York City who I’ve met numerous times and whose work impresses me is David Campbell, of TheWoodSmyth.com. David goes on long walks in the Pennsylvania woods to find fallen trunks, then makes custom boxes for clients–some of whom have just been released to hospice. Farther afield, Donald Byrne of Piedmont Pine Coffins in Bear Creek, NC, was an early activist in the green burial movement, and has been instrumental and totally supportive ever since. His simple, handmade caskets are beautiful.

Here’s a list of other hand-made casket-makers whose work I feel stands out: Aldergrove Caskets in North Carolina, Green Man Caskets serving North and South Carolina, North Woods Casket in Wisconsin, Nature’s Casket in Colorado (which has a cedar model made of shingles), Bert and Bud’s Vintage Coffins in Kentucky, Victory Coffin Company in Central Illinois, and The Old Pine Box in New Mexico. My favorite Trappist Casket maker is in Iowa (though the Trappists in Louisiana fought admirably against a shameless funeral directors’ lobby to win the legal right to sell simple boxes down there).

Here’s the Green Burial Council’s list of certified funeral products, including handmade caskets. And here’s an excellent little documentary about the classic, pegged Jewish pine box that you can watch if you’d like to know more about the belief that a simple box at the funeral is the ultimate statement of respect and humility.

Shrouds Seize the Limelight

The rule of simplicity, which works so well in life, works great in death also.

Which brings us to the shroud–one of the most significant items rising over the retail horizon of the 12-billion dollar funeral business. Jesus was wrapped in one. Here’s a little snippet of Charlemagne’s shroud (and I think Oscar de la Renta would approve).

Devout Jews and Muslims have much to teach about simple, earth-friendly burial, and they stick with the simplest and purest of shrouds. Here are some pretty fabulous shrouds currently on the market. It is lovely to be bathed, dried, shrouded then casketed in a biodegradable box. Then of course, some people prefer to be dressed in nice street clothes–a suit, tie, etc., dress and shawl for women–but you can still be wrapped in a family quilt or shroud after that, and then casketed if you prefer. It’s all about simpler, greener, family-focused options today, and my new motto is, “It’s all good.”

Child's shroud by AFineFarewell.com

Child’s shroud by AFineFarewell.com

Best Green Cemeteries For Eco-Friendly Burial Near New York City

-4By Amy Cunningham, Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, Brooklyn, NY

Some people think cremation is “greener” than burial because cremation generally requires no cemetery space. Actually, when you are speaking of one of the green conservation cemeteries within three hours of New York City or upstate, you can be protecting rural property by burying yourself in it. Cemetery laws prohibit highways or shopping malls from coming to land that has deceased people in it, so in using a green cemetery, you are helping to keep gorgeously-wooded, rural properties safe from development. (It may take a moment to bend your mind around this concept.) You can also be buried in a shroud (without a casket) in a green cemetery, something most conventional cemeteries don’t yet allow. No herbicides are used on the grass, as a rule, and the setting of a registered green burial ground is kept much as it was found: wild, natural, frequented by birds, squirrels, and deer. Folks who bury a family member in a green cemetery are sad a death has occurred, but elated by their participation in an end-of-life ritual that signals a return to the simpler burial practices of 200 years ago. Grave prep is more natural and aesthetically pleasing: no phony Astroturf covers the displaced soil, and evergreen boughs are available to help decorate or fill. Cemetery workers go out of their way to let family members lower the casket and shovel soil if that is their desire. You’ll also never see a grave-worker look harried or check his wristwatch at a green ground. The space is yours and you’ll be given ample graveside time. Some of my closest friends still exclaim, “Oh God, just cremate me.” But for those who love nature, history, and old-fashioned ritual, and for those whose custom has always been simple and green (Jews, Muslims among others), it’s a no brainer: Green burial in a natural burial ground–without an embalming, metal casket or vault–is a gracious, gorgeous, uplifting way to “go.” Here is my most complete accounting of every green cemetery and every hybrid ground attached to a conventional cemetery in or near NY state. There are shades of green at play here (two asterisks ** denote a completed registration with The Green Burial Council), but all plots listed here are priced well below the remaining graves in New York City. Some of these cemeteries are a little far afield, but I include them because they may make sense to New York families connected to those necks of the woods. FULTONVILLE NATURAL BURIAL GROUND, Upper Mohonk Street, Fultonville, NY 518-265-3136. Single plot $500 residents, $700 non-residents. GREEN MEADOW CEMETERY, 1121 Graham Street, Fountain Hill, PA, 18015. info@greenmeadowpa.org 610-868-4840. Plot $1500, open fee $650. **GREENSPRINGS NATURAL CEMETERY 293 Irish Hill Road, Newfield, NY 14867 (near Rochester) 607 564 7577. Standard lot $1,300; cremains lot $350. Opening fee for standard burial $1,000. Opening fee for cremains burial $225. Antique horse-drawn sleigh available to carry casket in winter. -6 HARLEMVILLE RURAL CEMETERY, near Spring Valley Rudolf Steiner School and Hudson, NY. Hybrid green ground attached to conventional country cemetery. Please call Jonitha Hasse at 518-325-7454 to obtain latest, extremely reasonable prices. **HOLY SEPULCHRE CEMETERY (Trinity Section) – Natural Burial Ground, 2461 Lake Avenue, Rochester NY 14612. 585-458-4110. $1600 single plot, $600 open. MARYREST CEMETERY 25 Seminary Road, Mahwah, NJ 07430, 201-327-7011. Single grave $1,400. Opening fee $1,750. Note: the purchaser should be a Catholic (but no one will “card” you). And the decedent need not be Catholic. This is, however, a Catholic cemetery. MOST HOLY REDEEMER CEMETERY 2501 Troy Schenectady Road, Schenectady, NY 518-374-5319. Single grave $1,500. Opening fee $715. Note: Decedent must be related to a Catholic. **MT. HOPE CEMETERY’S “GARDEN OF RENEWAL” (Hybrid), 1133 Mt. Hope Avenue, Rochester, NY 14620, 585-428-7999. Single grave $3,300, $800 open fee, $400 maintenance. ROSENDALE PLAINS CEMETERY, P.O. Box 85 793 Springtown Road, Tillson, NY 12486, not far from New Paltz. 845-658-9042. Single graves $550, opening fee for burial $575, required flat grave marker usually costs about $250. Plots available for cremated remains also at same price. Scattering garden in development.

SLEEPY HOLLOW CEMETERY just outside Tarrytown, NY 10591, 914-631-0081. (Historic cemetery with hybrid green burial ground by side of cemetery road, shrouds accepted, cremains accepted). Single grave $3,200. Opening fee for grave $1,797. Cremation grave (fits two urns) $1,500. Opening fee for cremated remains $536. **STEELMANTOWN CEMETERY 101 Steelmantown Road, Steelmantown, NJ (outside Cape May). 609-628-2297. Single or double plot $2,000. Grave opening fee $1,500. Eight-member family plot $7,000. Opportunities for wooded burial or placement in old Quaker cemetery. One hundred-year-old casket cart meets hearse and family at the gate.

Shovels at graveside

Shovels at graveside

TOWN OF RHINEBECK CEMETERY’S NATURAL BURIAL GROUND, 3 Mill Road, Rhinebeck, NY 12572, 845-876-3961. Single plot $1300, $900 to open. Plot for cremains $450, $600 to open. UNION CEMETERY AT MAYS LANDING, 195 Route 50, Mays Landing. NJ, 08330. 609-625-7571. Adult interment $850, interment of cremains $275. One-time regrading fee: $200. **WHITE HAVEN MEMORIAL PARK 210 Marsh Road, Pittsford, NY (near Rochester) 585-586-5259. Has Jewish area, Islamic area, all-green hybrid ground. $2150 grave, $675 open fee. Cremains in woods $2150, by water $2800, cremains open fee $395. **WOOSTER CEMETERY, 20 Ellsworth Avenue, Danbury, CT, 06810. 203-748-8529. Lovely historic grounds with green area priced lower than the conventional. $2700 adult plot, $900 open fee. Call office for foundation and maintenance costs. Marker and foundation fees vary. Most green cemeteries allow engraved, flat, native stones. For a complete listing of green burial grounds in other parts of the U.S. and Canada, follow this link to download a pdf list. Esmerelda Kent of Kinkaraco burial shrouds also maintains a green cemetery list. (Note: All photos are mine, taken last time I brought a family to Steelmantown.)

An Unforgettable Home Funeral

1947397_607967775963306_499716301_nLos Angeles certified death midwife Olivia Bareham of Sacred Crossings gives grieving families the necessary support to conduct funerals and vigils in their living rooms, just as they were held a century ago. Yes, that’s right. The deceased never “steps foot” in a funeral home prep room or chapel, and has either died at home or been carefully conveyed there from hospice or hospital. Home funerals can last from just a few hours to several days. The deceased is generally placed on a massage table or bed (decorated with colorful fabrics) or even a hand-decorated cremation casket, and dry ice is sometimes used to keep the body cool.

Bareham is a former board member of the National Home Funeral Alliance, a group with which I am also affiliated. She and other guides in almost every state now are reviving the old-fashioned wake, home vigil or viewing thought by many to endow death–be it sudden or expected– with greater meaning. You see, when death is brought into a residence, the home becomes a memorable venue for this highly sacred undertaking, a savoring of liminal time and space. Wakes like this are slower paced and highly participatory with family members bathing and dressing the deceased, annointing the body with fragrant essential oils, then sitting with the dead all day or night, witnessing, comforting and grieving in a waving natural rhythm until the vigil concludes.

When baby Darrius was born still, Sacred Crossings helped the family bring him home for a vigil and celebration of his ‘life in the womb’ with a loving community of friends and relations. His mother Emma later said “It helped me so much to be able to hold and bathe and dress my baby and show him to all the wonderful people who were looking forward to meeting him. It helped me to come back to reality after a very bad dream.”

Words cannot convey the beauty of these funerals, so I best be quiet for a moment and let you watch. I have to warn you, however, that this gorgeous video may well stir strong emotion and perhaps should not be viewed by anyone who has been close to an infant death in recent weeks.

Bareham was trained by renowned home funeral guide Jerrigrace Lyons, friend, mentor and loving sister of anyone engaged in this beautiful work. I completed Lyons’ Level III last September and now supervise these perfectly legal home funerals in New York. (Video courtesy of Sacred Crossings.)

Last Woolen Testament

images-6In 1667, British wool manufacturers were so fearful of the popularity of imported linen that they pushed Parliament for a law requiring every deceased person to be buried in a woolen shroud. Common folk complied with these strict requirements for more than seventy years. Perhaps it seemed like a cozy deal. Who doesn’t like a soft wool blanket? Capitalizing upon the well-publicized natural burial movement in England today, the Hainsworth Company, most famous for dressing Buckingham Palace guards, decided to sell people on the idea of wool burial again. images-5This handsome, biodegradable wool casket with jute handles is fortified with recycled cardboard and can support several hundred pounds. When you see it in person, as I did at the ICCFA convention, you long to crawl into it. (Of course I was tired, since the exposition hall was enormous.) Choose chocolate brown or a eggshell ivory. Casket retail price would be approximately $2400. Hainsworth makes pet caskets and lovely woolen boxes for cremated remains. Ask your funeral director about these products all available through Elliot Urn & Supply.woolen-casket-3_1296065546

The Family-Decorated Cremation Box

Photos courtesy of Olivia Bareham of Sacred Crossings in Los Angeles
Photo courtesy of Olivia Bareham

People struggle with how to personalize cremation. Death occurs. The funeral director arrives. The deceased is lifted, covered, and rolled away. Then a smooth plastic box containing cremated remains is presented two or three days later. Of course a service is possible with the body before cremation, or with an urn afterwards, but did you know that you could pay your funeral director (or a home funeral guide) to bring the cremation casket to your home so that you and your family members could decorate it? Check out Olivia Bareham’s Sacred Crossings website and see what one California death guide is helping families do in and around Los Angeles. The photographs of children at work with their designs and notes are gorgeous. You’d think a family’s amateur efforts might not be consistently excellent, but miraculously, these home decorated boxes are always terrific and families feel like they’re healing themselves by partaking in efforts so artistic and different. Thanks to Olivia, Char Barrett, Jerrigrace Lyons, Beth Knox, Lee Webster, and Peggy Quinn–all stalwart members of the The National Home Funeral Alliance for directing me to this remarkable concept. In the past six months, I’ve introduced the idea of decorating the box to several families who’ve written ardent messages of farewell on simple cremation caskets in the chapels of Green-Wood Cemetery’s crematory in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo by Olivia Bareham

Photo by Olivia Bareham

Wild for Wicker

Willow This casket from Elliott Urn and Passages International got me excited about entering funeral service. When I saw it on Mark Harris’s excellent green burial blog, I was so touched by its gorgeousness. To die for! It can be decorated by the family at the wake or viewing with fresh or dried flowers. The actress Lynn Redgrave was buried in one. With delivery, the six-foot size retails for about $1900. Numerous smaller sizes are available. Alas, nearly all wicker caskets sold in the U.S. today are made in China. I’m hoping it won’t take long to locate or cultivate a domestic manufacturer.

New half-couch seagrass also available

New half-couch seagrass also available from Passages International

A Mentor’s Farewell to Marilyn

Monroe's crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

Monroe’s crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

Our study of the eulogy brings us to this short piece of perfection delivered by Actors Studio director Lee Strasberg at actress Marilyn Monroe’s funeral in 1962. We are lucky to be able to hear a full recording here.

Strasberg barely got through his own closing paragraphs, which makes them all the more moving. Here’s what he said:
…I am truly sorry that the public who loved her did not have the opportunity to see her as we did, in many of the roles that foreshadowed what she would have become. Without a doubt she would have been one of the really great actresses of the stage. Now it is at an end. I hope her death will stir sympathy and understanding for a sensitive artist and a woman who brought joy and pleasure to the world.

I cannot say goodbye. Marilyn never liked goodbyes, but in the peculiar way she had of turning things around so that they faced reality – I will say au revoire. For the country to which she has gone, we must all someday visit.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
was played as well as a portion of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (scroll to minute seven of this link to hear it). Tchaikovsky’s melodic lament (said to be be a cry of love for his nephew back in 1893) seems an appropriate farewell to a screen goddess, and had been repositioned as a doo-wop tune in 1960 by Little Anthony and the Imperials, placing it in the social atmosphere at the time of Monroe’s death. She was viewable in an open heavy bronze casket, wearing this green Pucci dress, hands grasping pink tea roses from Joe Dimaggio who planned the entire service and didn’t allow any Hollywood stars or hangers-on to attend.

Female Pall Bearers Carry Father Greeley

Greeley's simple casket leaves church on Chicago's South side yesterday.

Greeley’s simple casket leaves church on Chicago’s South side yesterday.


Mass was celebrated yesterday for sociologist and Roman Catholic best-selling author Father Andrew Greeley at the Chicago church where Greeley had been a parish priest almost sixty years ago.

It’s not surprising that a strong-willed man who wrote about Jesus’s relationships with women, who also supported the ordination of women, and was survived by five nieces and one sister, would have female pall bearers (four of the six), but it is unusual, and a good illustration of how small gestures at the funeral can support the deceased’s point-of-view, paying homage in a big way.

Joy in the Mourning

You’ve heard about the marching Dixieland Jazz funeral that starts with a walking, mournful dirge down New Orleans’ streets and concludes with a jubilant interpretation of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” or “When the Saints Go Marching In.” This funeral for New Orleans tuba player Kerwin James in 2007 has an elevated casket swing and dance sequence that would give any New York funeral director I know a massive heart attack. Everyone up here thinks “liability.” You’ll be touched by it though. Here also, for your betterment and listening pleasure, is a full, fabulous CD of funeral Dixieland jazz.

Unadorned Casket for the Quintessential New Yorker

Koch Funeral

I wanted to show you Mayor Ed Koch’s casket, in case you missed it in the press coverage of a couple of months ago. It’s a solid oak casket with no handles, nails or hardware. Pegged at the joints. Biodegradable all the way but not inexpensive, by any means; a choice that shows how a powerful Jewish man can salute the unfinished pine box, stay loosely allied to the humble burial laws of his faith while still appearing, in death, a tad formidable. Some folks might have craved a darker stain or polyurethane sheen. Others might have insisted unfinished pine was the most observant Jewish option. But this selection seems an effort to please everybody, and an intriguing way to go.