UNITY, Maine — In Chuck Lakin’s competent hands, the plain pine box can double as a bookcase or even as an entertainment center.
During a session of Saturday’s Rural Living Workshop at Unity College, the Waterville woodworker cleared a little space at the front of the classroom and quickly assembled two of his handmade coffins. He also showed photographs of his more multipurpose models, which evidently can serve a useful life long before reverting to the traditional business of coffins.
Attendees scribbled notes and asked him questions, their imaginations clearly tickled by the coffins.
“Why isn’t every home furnished like this?” one attendee called out.
For Lakin, the customized coffins’ best use is that they spark conversations about something that often can make people feel uncomfortable — home funerals.
“When my father died, I wanted to be part of whatever happened next but I didn’t know how,” he said. “What I would do now is that we would have built the box, and he would have been kept at home. I don’t think people know this is possible. I’m providing the possibility that they’ll have a more meaningful experience.”
Lakin and two like-minded colleagues have created a resource guide to do-it-yourself funerals, called “Last Things,” and they are working hard to educate Mainers about home funerals.
They are part of a trend that’s on the rise for reasons as diverse as economizing, environmentalism and an increased desire to honor loved ones at home, he said. The last time having home funerals was a widespread custom was during the 1950s, but that is changing fast.
“Home funerals right now are where home childbirth was 30 years ago,” Lakin said. “I’m not trying to put funeral directors out of business, but I just want people to know there is an alternative.”
Lakin shared some surprising facts about the funeral and cremation industries, including:
ä One-sixth of the mercury pollution in the air comes from cremation.
ä What’s left after cremation is actually bone meal. People have opted to blast this into space, turn it into an artificial coral reef or a diamond.
ä Maine is home to two green cemeteries, the Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington and the Rainbow’s End in Orrington.
Perhaps the most surprising fact he shares is also the most basic.
“Home funerals are perfectly legal,” Lakin said. “There’s no part of the process you can’t do yourself.”
He emphasized that people have the right to choose the funeral goods and services that they want, and that a funeral home can’t refuse or charge a fee to handle a casket bought elsewhere.
For Susan Lachlan of Waldo, Lakin’s presentation wasn’t just handy information to file away for an undetermined future. Lachlan’s mother is dying, she said, and has made it clear that she wants no part of a funeral home funeral.
“With her death being imminent, this gave me more of an idea for the possibilities,” Lachlan said.
Lakin reminisced for a moment about the best part of his own father’s funeral — which happened after the burial.
“People sat around our backyard all afternoon, laughing, crying, telling me stories I’d never heard,” he said. “What a gift that was.”
Resource guide: Web site for Last Things: www.lastthings.net; Federal Trade Commission’s “Funerals: A Consumer’s Guide:” http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/products/pro19.shtm