Anne Strainchamps: We're talking about reckoning with death in this hour, and people have different ways of doing that. In Waterville, Maine Chuck Laken builds coffins that double as pieces of furniture.
Chuck Laken: So, kinda the coffin collection here. This is just the plain pine box. There's the toe pincher coffin. Actually I think the first coffin was sort of a gimmick, I woke up in the middle of the night, the idea came to me for one: you can stand this coffin up with five shelves in it, it's a display cabinet. You can put it on it's side, and the first, third, and fifth shelves turn 90 degrees so you can use it as an entertainment center, and when you turn it on its back, the 5 shelves become the lid. One of my friends has one of those in her living room and she just loves having new friends over for dinner, because at some lull in the conversation during the evening she'll drop in the fact that that's her coffin over in the corner just to see what happens, and you know it always starts a conversation — after the initial shock of course. It's a different topic that people don't talk about but they discover that they have something to say usually or they have something they need to say.
This is the bookcase coffin, back here you can see the handles bolted on one side. There's only a couple of people that I know who have one of my coffins that's being used as a piece of furniture, and one of them is right here in town who bought a coffin, one that you can store flat and assemble it just in a couple of minutes with using just wedges, but she had me put three shelves in it she uses it as a quilt storage rack. She had it in her bedroom until her husband made her take it out of the bedroom because it was creeping him out, but she gets a kick out of it.
The beginning, really, was my fathers death, this was in 1979. He was home for the last 6 weeks of his life and I am very privileged to be able to say that I was there for the last month of that, and he was in his own bed with his wife and four kids touching him when he died. It had been a very personal experience up until that point, and I wanted to be a part of whatever happened next, but I had no idea what I could do, and so we called the funeral director. He arrived promptly, zipped dad in a body bag, hauled him away and four days later we got a box of ashes in the mail, and I was very uncomfortable with that disconnect. I wanted to be there with him, and then I really wanted to make his coffin. It would have been a very comforting way to say goodbye.
One coffin I shipped to a woman in Iowa, she just mentioned that it was a birthday present to herself and so I tried to time it so that it arrived the day before her birthday. I think if you're unprepared and had been ignoring it most death is a tragedy. It's treated like a tragedy when it's a natural process. I know I'm there intellectually and I have no idea how I will respond emotionally when the time actually comes, but I think I want to get to the point where I can treat my death as an adventure.
Anne: Chuck Laken is a woodworker and home funeral educator, he lives in Waterville, Maine.