Monday, June 1, 2009

Ask the Undertaker: Advice to DIY

DIY Casket by Joe Scanlan

Dear Undertaker - 

Being a rabid-do-it-yourselfer, I was wondering what issues there are (if any) with making my own casket? I have seen plans online and think it would be the ultimate personalization of the experience. Also, Are there any issues or tips for doing my own headstone (other than adding my expiration date)?

-Handyman in Houston

DIY Casket by Joe Scanlan

Dear Handyman,

Making your own casket can be a rewarding and challenging project for a do-it-yourselfer.  The rewards would be, as you said, the ultimate personalization.  You'd have the opportunity to make your final resting place an expression of your own taste, handiwork and artistic vision.  For some inspirational ideas for creative caskets (which would unfortunately not meet any of the specifications normally required in the states), visit my post on Ghanaian caskets 'Art and Death intersect in Ghana'.  There are some real challenges and restrictions to be aware of before you start your project.  The casket must be made within the dimensions that would allow it to fit into a standard burial vault (which are required at most cemeteries).  It must also fit inside the hearse with the handles in an open position.   A flat bed truck could be used to transport your casket if you have one available and desire this mode of transportation, but it would be very difficult for pallbearers to safely load and unload with such a vehicle.  Your casket should have handles that provide a good grip for your pallbearers (Rope handles don't work very well), and be light enough and strong enough to easily carry.  The homemade caskets I have seen usually are not strong enough to be supported by the handles, are too heavy to carry, or are too large in at least one dimension.  On the other side of the size issue, if you make your casket a tight fit for yourself now, and then gain weight before you die, your casket may be too small for you to fit into, or to look comfortable in, when the time comes.

If you desire a viewing, it's important to realize that the caskets available at the funeral home feature adjustable mattresses, pillows, and fabric that drapes over the edges. This allows the funeral director to make adjustments to the positioning of the deceased, allowing them to look comfortable while in state.  I posted a piece on the stagecraft involved in viewings in April  'Embalming Part 3: Stagecraft'.   If you are still interested and confident after reading this, pay a visit to your local undertaker and ask to take a close careful look at the features and dimensions that standard caskets have, and decide if you have the skills to incorporate them into your own casket.

In any case, at the time of death, your undertaker will ask your family to sign a waiver releasing the funeral home from liability should your handiwork fall apart on the way to the grave, or fail to fit inside the vault.


This weekend, I was at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's 'Return to Function' exhibit which, along with some other witty pieces, featured an Ikea style casket, by artist Joe Scanlan, that looked just like the Swedish furniture that many of us have had to put together at one time or another.  Anyone who has had to move this furniture will attest to the fact that it falls apart even without one hundred or more pounds of cargo inside.   For more of Mr. Scanlan's work visit the site of his gallery, Galerie Chez Valentin.

Making your own headstone is not quite my department, but here are some basic issues to consider:

  • What kind of materials , dimensions and footings are acceptable at the cemetery?
  • Will anyone be able to engrave information on the marker without ruining it after it's installed?
  • Who will the cemetery allow to install the marker?

Many people have their markers installed before death, and if you are making your own, I would recommend installing it and enjoying it right away.  A neighbor of mine had a boulder that she loved and was able to get the local monument company to engrave and set it for her.  It looks great.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is great information! I'm thinking about getting a traditional casket and having it airbrushed.

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