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North Hills Monthly

Coffin-making Class Provides Peace of Mind to Makers

Dec 31, 2019 11:33AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Wade Caruso works with Liz Perkins (center) and Lisa Zourelias.

Talking to Liz Perkins as she confidently hammers nails into a knotty pine board, you might not realize that she’s never done any woodworking before. The more surprising part of watching her work, however, is realizing that the project she’s completing is her own coffin.

“I’m going to put it in the living room and store blankets in it, and put plants on top,” she explained of the seven-foot long box that she’s completing as part of a coffin-making class held at Hahn Funeral Home in Millvale, PA. 

The coffin-building workshop, offered for the first time this past November by Green Burial Pittsburgh, gave participants a chance to create their own green burial coffin under the instruction of woodworking expert Wade Caruso.

“Back in the day, people often built their own coffins, and most morticians were carpenters who also made coffins,” explained Pete McQuillin, owner of Penn Forest Natural Burial Ground, of this traditional art. Penn Forest is the first and only green cemetery in Pennsylvania that is certified by the Green Burial Council as a natural burial ground.

“I always tell people that doing physical things is the pathway to helping deal with grief, and the more they’re involved in the dying process—including the planning—the better it is,” he added. “I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me that until they actually lowered the body into the grave, they didn’t appreciate that the person was truly gone. But you have to move on, and it helps to have a physical connection to taking care of your own family.”

Coming to terms with death is one reason why Perkins decided to build her own coffin. 

“I feel uneasy about dying, so I’m trying to explore it and figure out why it makes me so nervous,” she explained. “Our culture is so weird about dying; in Vietnam, for example, people have their coffins in their homes so they can try them out. For me, I imagine that being comfortable with being in it will be a challenge.”

A self-described “long-time eco-friendly type of person,” Lisa Zourelias was extremely intrigued by the idea of green burial and decided to buy a lot at Penn Forest. “I've been using reusable shopping bags for over 30 years, so as soon as I heard about green burial, I was in,” she said. “It was a no-brainer. I was debating whether to use a shroud or a coffin, and when I saw the class, I thought it would be really cool to make my own.

“I know people think I’m crazy,” she laughed, adding that she plans to use it as a bookcase until she needs it. “When I told people what I was doing, they were like, “What???”

Zourelias, whose husband died nine years ago, plans to inter her husband’s ashes in the coffin with her. 

While the idea may be anathema to some, Jaime Hahn, supervisor at Hahn Funeral Home, says that it’s good to provide people with options. “This is our first workshop, and it fits in well with what is going on in the industry,” she said, adding that she and McQuillin first began talking about the idea after she held a burial at his cemetery. “It’s such a specialty market. It will appeal to some people to make their own coffin; others will want to buy one. It’s just another choice.”

“Because she owns an independent funeral home, Jaime is willing to try different things,” added McQuillin of their collaboration. “She’s not stuck in the mud; she’s willing to come up with new ideas and see what happens.”

According to McQuillin, handmade coffins are accepted at funeral homes and burial grounds. “The law says that you can supply your own coffin, and funeral homes have to accept customer-supplied coffins,” he explained, adding that to be buried in Penn Forest, the coffin must be biodegradable and eco-friendly. “Nowadays, you can buy coffins at Costco, through Amazon or online.”

Still, it’s a little disconcerting to watch people building their own coffin, especially when listening to Caruso’s instructions. 

“Put the nice side of the wood out,” he says to the class. “You’re not going to see it.”

The three-hour class, coffin-making kit, and personal instruction costs $480 and participants leave with a completed coffin and the knowledge that when the time comes, they are ready.

“It’s nice to feel like you’re regaining control over something that you have no control over,” said Perkins. 

To learn more about coffin-making classes, contact McQuillin at Penn Forest at 412-977-2207 or email Wade Caruso at awcaruso@gmail.com. While there are no classes currently scheduled, a second class at Burket-Truby Funeral Home in Oakmont is planned for January or February. To learn more about what’s happening at Penn Forest, sign up for the newsletter at https://www.pennforestcemetery.com.