Want to bond with your kids? Build a casket together!

How building a box to be buried in brought these women closer to each other, and themselves.
Libby Hoops and her daughter Sarah take a break inside the coffin they built. (Rachel Matlow)
Listen to the full episode16:20

By Rachel Matlow

The North House Folk School — on the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota — is a haven for traditional northern craft-making. Classes include Autumn Bead Embroidery, Leaf Printing and Cedar Boat-building. However, there's one course there, in the quaint harbour village of Grand Marais, that's perhaps a little different than the others. 

Casket-Making. 

"None of us are getting out of this alive," reads the class description, "so we may as well bury ourselves in our work!"

Workshop leader Randy helps Michelle build her casket.

Professional woodworker Randy Schnobrich has been leading the workshop about once a year for over a decade now. "A lot of people think it's just a morbid idea to build your own casket," says Randy. "But for people who are more realistic about the end, they think it would be kind of cool to have a hand in creating something they'll be buried in or cremated in."
And, in the meantime, we can use it as coffee table or something like that.- Sarah Hoops 

People come from across the U.S. and Canada for the weekend, bringing along all different types of motivations. 

It was actually 27-year-old Sarah Hoops who asked her 59-year-old mom, Libby, to take the class with her. "The reason I wanted to take the class is because of my work in the death and dying field," explains Sarah, an end-of-life doula who's also learning to become a home funeral guide. "I wanted to learn how to make a casket so I can pass that skill onto my clients if that's what they want to do." 

Libby and Sarah Hoops, working on their casket (Rachel Matlow)

As for Libby, her decision to take the class wasn't quite so deliberate. "I knit, so I weighed my options between the wool class and casket making," admits Libby. "Wool was full, so the decision was made."

A casket on its way home

Meanwhile, for 53-year-old Michelle Ilstrup, it's all about having more options than her parents' generation. "When you're grieving, you say yes to anything," explains Michelle. "We said yes to a $10,000 casket for my mom that she was shown in for two hours and then we buried her in it."

Michelle, who's experienced multiple deaths, stresses the importance of preparation. "You plan a birth and you have parties and showers and get the bedroom ready and you have celebrations, but you don't do that completely for death. And I think we should." 

In following these women over the course of three days, "Coffin Class" follows these amateur woodworkers as they laugh, share "death ideas" and attempt to build caskets they, or someone they love, might one day use.

"And, in the meantime, we can use it as coffee table or something like that," says Sarah. 

This story aired as part of our Sept. 12, 2017 episode.

Two stories of awkward, dangerous and beautiful family bonding - from the last time a family of five ever agrees to get in a canoe together to a mother and daughter who "bury themselves in their work" building a casket. 28:59


"Coffin Class" was made with support from the Doc Project Mentorship Program.

Rachel Matlow
About the producer

Rachel Matlow is an arts and culture journalist/audio producer at the CBC. She has worked on Q/q, Day 6, The Sunday Edition, Spark and The Current. Her first documentary with the Doc Project Mentorship Program, "Dead Mom Talking," won Third Coast and Gabriel awards.