By Del Williams, a technical writer based in Torrance, California.
When a family loses a loved one, honoring their life, legacy, and personality often requires more than a standard casket. Casket distributors and funeral directors across the nation are answering this need by catering to regional, ethnic, religious, and lifestyle requests with custom wooden caskets.
“When funeral directors purchase custom wood caskets for families instead of standard metal caskets, we’ve found that certain qualities of wood and style can bring back fond memories,” says Chris Russell, co-owner of Pontotoc Box Company, a Pontotoc, Mississippi-based distributor of quality U.S.-made caskets serving the Southeast. “Aromatic red cedar can recall memories of grandma’s cedar chest or grandpa’s cedar fence posts. Oak can recall the reliability and sturdiness of a farmer’s life.”
Culture and Lifestyle
In regards to style, today’s custom caskets have developed along with regional cultures and lifestyles. One custom casket, for instance – made of solid oak with the look of reclaimed lumber taken from an old barn, with rod iron handles, old world nail heads, and an embroidered barn head panel – does particularly well with farmers, according to Russell.
“The Rustic Oak casket reflects our southern farm heritage,” says Russell. “For funeral homes in the Mississippi Delta, a big farming region, New England Casket Company has even embroidered wheat stacks in a couple of head panels, and a cotton boll in another head panel.”
While New England Casket Company has a regional sounding name, it is one of a few custom U.S. casket manufacturers that handcraft caskets to meet the local needs of casket distributors and funeral directors nationwide. The Boston, Massachusetts-based company has handcrafted hardwood caskets for three generations, and offers a full line of conventional, Jewish Orthodox, and oversize caskets that can be customized in virtually any aspect.
For regions like the South and Midwest where hunting and the outdoors are a lifelong passion, custom caskets can honor a loved one’s lifestyle. Some made of solid oak sport a camouflage interior and wrought iron handles. Some with a solid hickory and oak interior even have real elk antler handles, true deerskin head panels and trim, and “real embroidered deerskin.”
Along the bible belt, crosses, doves, or praying hands embroidered on head panels are frequently requested in custom cedar, oak, hickory, poplar, or walnut caskets, according to Russell.
In the Midwest, engraved pictures of crosses, the Last Supper, or the Pieta (the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus’ body after the crucifixion) are commonly requested on custom casket hardware, often in brushed nickel, according to Rick Criswell, owner of Criswell Caskets, a St. Charles, Missouri-based independent distributor of custom U.S. made caskets serving the Midwest.
“Why consider custom wood caskets?” asks Criswell, who stocks about 1,400 caskets in a 20,000 sq. ft. warehouse. “Because local, regional, and family preferences must be satisfied, often quickly at the last minute.”
“One day I’ll need a mahogany casket for a priest with a velvet interior and no hinges, so the whole lid comes off,” says Criswell. “Another day, I’ll need a Jewish Orthodox casket made strictly from wood, with no nuts, bolts, nails or metal, put together by dowel pegs.”
Meeting casket size requirements can also be an important consideration, and a reason to choose a custom wood casket manufacturer.
Jewish cemeteries may require caskets much narrower than the typical crypt width, says Criswell. Nationwide, people are getting bigger and taller too, well beyond the typical casket interior width and length, he says.
“One reason I’ve been so successful as an independent casket dealer is that my manufacturers help us adapt to whatever the funeral home director, community, or family needs on short notice,” says Criswell. “New England Casket helps us customize to region, ethnicity, religion, and family preferences, whatever we need. They’ll build us custom caskets as narrow as 22”, as wide and long as necessary,” says Criswell.
Customizing is vital to help casket distributors and funeral directors meet the needs of families, according to Scott
Ginsberg, President of Northern Craft Casket, a Lawrence,
Massachusetts-based distributor of quality U.S. made metal and wood caskets serving the Northeast. “Emergencies come up and funeral directors need help to accommodate the wishes of the family in a pinch,” says Ginsberg. Special requests can vary from custom exteriors and interiors, from full couch to reverse panels, and beyond, he says.
According to Ginsberg, caskets that are mass-produced and shipped from overseas with lead times of several months are not able to customize or meet special requests in a timely way. Neither are large corporations with multiple layers of sales and management far removed from the factory floor, with little to no knowledge of how to construct or customize a casket.
Working with a U.S.-based, family-owned manufacturer that has specialized in custom hardwood casket-making for generations is a different matter, says Ginsberg.
“Sunday night I got a call from a funeral director with a special request for a Monday afternoon service,” says Ginsberg. “A 13-year old girl had died and her family wanted the casket interior changed to red velvet because red was her favorite color, with Christmas trees around the casket because she loved Christmas.”
While typical casket interior changes take more than a day, Ginsberg called Lou Tobia Jr., President of New England Casket, at home on Sunday night. “Lou Jr. expedited the change, I picked up the casket Monday morning and brought it to the funeral time in time for the afternoon service,” says Ginsberg.
“Since Lou Jr. and Lou Sr. are involved in all aspects of casket-making from orders to manufacture to inspection, they know what can be done or customized, and will give you an answer on the spot,” explains Ginsberg. “They can walk onto the production floor and make things happen. So can much of their staff, because the company has been handcrafting caskets for 80 years, to the point where casket-making is in their DNA.”
For more information on New England Casket Company, call 617-569-1510; Fax 617-569-0520; visit www.newenglandcasket.com.