WATERVILLE — Chuck Lakin has seven coffins in his garage; different models, different styles. One’s a bookcase that turns into a coffin. One’s a coffee-table-turned-coffin. Yet another is disassembled, resting in pieces against the back wall, returned to him a year after purchase. The intended occupant ended up being buried in a cardboard box instead. No insult taken.
Lakin is in the coffin-making business, but he isn’t yet a coffin-making businessman. He’s waited for a sign, of sorts, to ramp up advertising and enter the fray. He’s sold some, given away a fair number and has directions on a Web site for the do-it-yourselfer (“How to Make the Quick Coffin”).
“It’s the people who aren’t comfortable with their life that can’t talk about their death,” said Lakin, 64. “It’s not like you’re going to get out of this alive.”
A craftsman since he was in his 20s, he got into coffins after his father’s death in 1979. That experience — his father died in his own bed, a funeral director collected the body and “four days later, we got a box of ashes in the mail” — led him to learn more about home funerals and, from there, green funerals.
With Klara Tammany of Auburn and Eva Thompson of Yarmouth, he does outreach, not advocating home funerals, but explaining the mechanics of them.
“If you’re a woodworker and you’re talking about funerals, you’re going to make coffins — at least I am,” Lakin said.
His angle is pre-need enjoyment and multifunction. Designs have lots of simple, clean lines. He usually uses pine and a light, clear finish. They’re all made to order; sample coffins are short, for tote-ability. Cost ranges from $400 to $900.
The hinged bookcase model generates the most interest, he said, with removable 7-inch-deep shelves that keep it a bookcase “right up until you need it.”
Lakin’s favorite is his wedge style (no metal, no nails). That’s the one Laurie Fenlason’s mother picked.
Last September, Barbara Baker learned that breast cancer had spread to her bones and she had six months to live. Lakin had already made a coffin for Baker’s cat. The choice to have her own made came naturally. He delivered it a week before Christmas, when Baker had a friend, Carla, staying over.
“Carla comes home at 4:30, and my mom says, ‘Chuck’s coming and he’s bringing my casket today,’” Fenlason said. Carla pulled her aside and warned her: “I think there’s something wrong with your mother’s mind.”
Fenlason said her mom was touched that someone would make something so beautiful for her. After she died on Jan. 18, Fenlason and her husband, Glenn, assembled the coffin themselves at the funeral home. Family signed the inside of the plain pine lid. Guests were encouraged to sign on top. They wrote things like, “You’ll always be the queen of green fried tomatoes.”
“It was another healing thing for us,” Fenlason said. “Morbid didn’t even come into the picture at all. I hope 1,000 other people want to do this.”
Lakin said he had heard of customers surprising guests at home with “that’s my coffin in the corner” during conversational lulls. One woman kept her coffin in the bedroom, using it as a quilt rack until her husband asked her to move it — it creeped him out too much.
A retired Colby College librarian who believes in reincarnation, Lakin doesn’t have his own coffin picked out. That, he said, would be up to his wife.
Lakin’s business is one of two Maine companies in the Funeral Consumers Alliance’s online list of roughly 80 U.S. coffin-makers, but he hasn’t put himself out there much. Last summer he was part of a feature in the New York Times. And at the Common Ground Fair last fall, he demonstrated making a small pinch-toe coffin (a classic with wide shoulders, narrow feet) and handed out 500 business cards.
Recently, his coffins came up in conversations three times in one week, which, he said, may have been the push he needed to start advertising services.
“Any time something happens to me three times, it’s time to start paying attention,” he said.
Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, intriguing and unexplained in Maine. Send ideas, photos and mermen to [email protected]