When it comes to death and burial, coffin-maker Chuck Lakin of Waterville wants you to think outside the box.
Or in a box, if you prefer.
“You can be buried in cardboard box, a shroud, your favorite sweatpants or nothing at all,” Lakin says. “You’d be surprised at how few rules there are.”
Lakin is well known for his do-it-yourself coffin-building demonstrations at the Common Ground Country Fair, where he also speaks about the practices of “natural burial.” He also travels throughout the state speaking, at no charge, to groups at libraries, adult education classes, senior centers, health care facilities and other venues. Many of the ideas he shares with his audiences can be found on his website, Last Things.
For example, in Maine:
— It is legal to care for your own dead in your own home.
— It is legal to bury a family member’s body on your own land, subject to state regulations and local ordinances.
— You do not have to buy a casket from the funeral home that serves you.
— You do not have to be embalmed.
— A vault or grave liner is not required by law, though some cemeteries do require one.
Lakin, who is 70 and retired from his career as a reference librarian at Colby College, gives 30 or 40 presentations per year and the demand keeps rising. He thinks that’s largely because of the aging of the baby boom generation and a growing interest in reclaiming death as a natural transition and an integral part of the human experience.
“Ninety percent of people die expected deaths,” he said, and yet families often feel distressingly removed from the process. Last Things, the organization he co-founded in 2008, provides resources and support for connecting more personally with death, from caring for a dying loved one at home or participating more closely in institutional care to washing and tending the body after death to burial in a manner that confers intimacy, dignity and meaning on the occasion.
The organization also provides information about options such as whole-body donation, burial at sea, flame cremation and alkaline hydrolysis, also known as “green cremation” — a relatively new process that dissolves soft tissue and leaves only bone to be pulverized for spreading, storage or burial. The water-based process uses a fraction of the energy required for flame cremation and releases no chemical pollutants into the environment.
Regardless of the options people choose, Lakin encourages them to plan ahead.
“One reason people feel that death is so tragic is that they’re usually so unprepared when it happens,” Lakin said. “They end up running around and making arrangements at the last minute. But if it’s planned ahead of time, the situation is more calm and there is more opportunity to honor the death as a spiritual occasion.”
Lakin’s interest in natural death and burial practices grows out of personal experience.
“My father died of metastatic lung cancer in 1979,” he said. “He was home in his own bed for the last six weeks, with his wife and kids surrounding him and touching him, right up until he died. It was all very natural.”
That changed when someone called the local funeral director.
“He did exactly what was expected of him,” Lakin recalled. “He arrived promptly, zipped my father into a body bag, drove him away and four days later we had the funeral.”
He paused. “I hated that.”
Cost, convention, crisis
Alison Rector of Monroe is president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine, which, according to its website, promotes “‘simplicity, dignity and economy in funeral arrangements through advance planning.”
FCAM provides information, support and resources regardless of the type of funeral families desire, Rector said.
“If someone wants to have a fancy, elaborate funeral and work with a funeral director, that’s fine,” she said.
The organization provides practical advice and tools for clarifying last wishes and planning after-death care as well as legal information and cost guidelines.
Rector said many Mainers contact the organization in crisis, after a sudden death or in sticker shock after learning how much a standard funeral will cost — $7,200 is the national average, not including a cemetery plot, a memorial stone and other costs. In many cases, she said, natural burial options do cost substantially less than a conventional funeral.
But, she added, “many of the people we hear from are already looking for unconventional choices,” such as the kind of information Last Things provides.
“We’re trying to get people to think ahead, to talk with their family members so it isn’t a crisis situation,” she said.
FCAM encourages all consumers to shop around, as they would for any other service. In 2011,the organization surveyed about 75 funeral service providers in Maine about the cost of 12 specific services, finding substantial differences. For example, the cost of embalming ranged from $250 to $895 and the cost of a funeral ceremony ranged from $300 to $625.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, a national survey of funeral directors found that the median cost of a whole-body funeral in 2014 was about $7,200. The cost jumped to $8,500 with the inclusion of a concrete vault at burial, which many conventional cemeteries require. The same survey found that the median cost of a funeral service after cremation was about $6,100. These prices do not include the cost of a burial plot, which typically costs between $500 and $2,000.
“More and more people are exploring the idea of natural burial,” Chuck Lakin said. “They’re not really interested in putting an embalmed body in a metal casket inside a sealed concrete vault in a conventional cemetery, thinking they’re somehow shielding the body from decomposition. It’s ridiculous; you can’t do it.”
By contrast, he said, in a natural burial, “the plain pine box decomposes, you decompose and all the nutrients go back into the soil for other things to grow with. You’re basically composting yourself.”
Lakin builds his simple wooden coffins in his basement workshop using pine, plywood or other woods. Models include a basic rectangular box and lid, one with flared sides, one that can be used as a bookshelf until it’s needed for a burial and one that comes apart and collapses neatly for storage. He also makes a popular oblong “toe-pincher” model like those seen in old westerns. Handles are made of rope or wood, and all models can be constructed without the use of metal fasteners, in keeping with requirements for a Jewish burial or for interment in a green cemetery.
Lakin’s prices range from about $300 for a toe-pincher to about $875 for a collapsible version held together with wooden wedges. But for the more hands-on types, Lakin provides free do-it-yourself plans on the Last Things website and offers one-on-one coffin-building workshops in his basement.
He takes a practical tone in inviting people to consider building their own coffin.
“After all, there’s only one other thing besides taxes you can count on,” reads his workshop page on the Last Things site. “Imagine the fun you’ll have going to work on Monday, just waiting for the first person to ask how you spent your weekend.”