Chuck’s house doesn’t look like any other house on the block. It’s made of wood and Y-shaped, with a garage that is actually a bridge over a creek. His kitchen smells like many years of meals have been made there. I get the idea that Chuck never takes the backseat to his own life: He makes as much as he can himself. He is involved, curious, and innovative in regard to everything: Including death.
A woodworker and former librarian, he is working on a series of city-wide flower boxes and is repairing a stack of broken library books when I visit his workshop in Waterville, Maine. But in room off the side of his basement workspace is filled with about half a dozen handmade wooden coffins. Chuck points to the inside of one of the coffins, and shows me where the shelves will go. This coffin will be used as a bookshelf before it is used for burial. He makes coffins that are also used as quilt racks, entertainment centers, and coffee tables.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
My two needs are I have to have something to do with my hands and I have to be helpful.
TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED OR ARE LEARNING?
Well, the one I was thinking about this morning while I was making legs for planters is that there is quite a difference between making one for a sample to making ten. The lesson was that I was trying to be too fancy, but it would be a lot easier if it were simpler. But, you still want it to be graceful.
WHAT’S THE BEST MOMENT OF YOUR DAY?
The best moment of the day is eating supper. Sitting here with a glass of wine and good food. Some people – I don’t like big crowds – but I like a group of up to six people and good conversation.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
I want whatever is going to happen next. I trust that I have the things that I’m supposed to have at this point. And it’s all good. And this is a spiritual journey, and it’s up to me to be ready for the next step, and I’m ready for whatever is next.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR WOODWORKING PROJECTS.
I do what anybody asks me to do. I like things that require something different, that have something clever in them. They come apart or they fold out or something happens. I turned our Honda Odyssey van into a camper, and somebody who just bought a Honda Odyssey wants me to make one for her. An art conservator wants a cart that she can store the paintings she is working on in, but it needs to come apart so that she can move the cart readily. It’s got to fit into the back of her Subaru station wagon. Then there’s the woman who wants an arched entry way into her house, I’m playing with the designs on that one. I make wheelchair ramps for hospice clients. I have them in a system so I can install them, and when they no longer need them I can reuse virtually all of the parts for the next person. Then there are the signs, the planters, and the coffins.
WHAT ARE THE PROJECTS YOU GET MOST EXCITED ABOUT?
The one I’m on at the time. Do I get more excited about some than others? In a large part, the pleasure comes from the design process. I know enough to draw out my first ideas, and then let it sit. I frequently wake up in the middle of the night, with ideas for my designs. I don’t go back to sleep readily because I start thinking about one thing or another. There are a number of designs that have come to me during that time period right there, when your mind is not occupied by anything else. You can let is roll and see where it goes. Your mind can get to some pretty screwy places but it can also give you some of the little moments where you can feel when you are taking steps towards the final design. You can feel when you get there, the final piece drops into place.
TELL ME ABOUT THE COMPONENTS OF DESIGN THAT ARE YOU DRAWN TO.
When I started out with woodworking when I was 26, all my corners were square and everything was straight lines. That’s the way I saw things and that’s what I knew how to do. Over time, little things started to creep in. Gentle curves, rounded edges, things like that. Now, my style is so distinctive that people will recognize it. They see things and say, “Oh, Chuck did that.” It turns out that it’s Japanese, wabi sabi suki. Simple elegance is what I’m shooting for.
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE WHEN YOU WALK INTO YOUR WORKSHOP? WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE WHEN YOU BEGIN WORKING?
I am probably not conscious of what I am feeling because my head is working hard on where I am starting. There are two or three disadvantages to having your workshop downstairs. It’s a dust factory, it’s a little bit noisy, and when something goes wrong you can walk upstairs and have a drink of water or pick up a book. But, when something strikes me, I can just walk downstairs and do it.
HOW DID YOU BEGIN MAKING COFFINS?
The other thing that I do is talk to people about home funerals. Or funeral choices in general. I make presentations for adult-ed programs, hospice trainings, coffin making classes. Three of us put together a website that educates people about how to do a home funeral in Maine. I want to help people make good choices, and for the most part people don’t know they have choices. You can save a lot of money and have a whole different experience than if you just call up a funeral director.
WHAT IS A HOME FUNERAL LIKE?
In Maine and in most states, after a death it’s perfectly legal to keep the body at home. You can wash it, dress it, have your own wake or visitation or vigil. You can create a sacred space. You can make your own coffin. You can do your own paperwork. One of the pieces of paper is legal authority to transport the body to the cemetery or crematorium or wherever the final place of disposition.
WHEN DID YOU BEGIN LEARNING ABOUT DEATH?
It evolves. But the precipitating incident was the death of my own father. This was in 1979 and he was home for the last six week of his life, and I’m glad to say I was there for the last month of that. And he was in his own bed with his wife and four kids touching him. It has been a very personal experience up until that point. And I didn’t know it before that, but I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever happened next. But I didn’t know what I could do. So, we called a funeral director. And he did what I’m sure he thought we wanted him to do, which was arrive promptly and zip dad in a body bag and take him away and mail us a box of ashes four days later. And that disconnect was very important to me. And it was almost 20 years later that I found the information that I needed that told me what I could have done at the point. I started giving people the information that they needed to have if they wanted the experience that I wanted to have when my father died. It has evolved past that. I started out just talking about home funerals. Now, I’m big on planning and making choices. It’s about thinking about it and making sure it is written down and you’ve had a conversation with the family. If you haven’t transmitted the information about what you’d like to have happen to your body to anybody, those people are going to have to make a lot of potentially expensive or contentious decisions. It’s a tragedy and it’s very stressful for everybody. If you’ve made the plans ahead of time, it can be a spiritual time. It can give them a chance to grieve.
DO YOU WISH PEOPLE’S ATTITUDES TOWARDS DEATH WERE DIFFERENT?
Americans are really good at ignoring the fact that they are going to die. That’s an interesting question because I think everyone has the experiences they need to grow. This is a spiritual trip you are on. And you are constantly being offered the chance to grow, but you’ve got to be ready to take it. And so, I’m offering what I consider a chance for people to grow. And it’s up to them and their spiritual path. You’d be surprised how often death comes up in conversation.
WHAT IS YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARDS DEATH?
I think that the opposite of death isn’t life, it’s birth. A transition into this life and a transition out of this life. Which implies there’s something on either end. I think your death is a spiritual experience and I think that if I have a goal in this, it would be to get to the point where I can treat my own death as an adventure.
YOU MENTIONED THAT THE COFFIN IS A SACRED OBJECT? WHAT IS IT LIKE TO MAKE SOMETHING SACRED?
You are not trying to hurry, you are trying to do something well. You are still trying to be efficient. If somebody buys a coffin from you, it is an honor. They are honoring you. Coffins have a different place in people’s lives than a piece of furniture or a sign. But that same attitude serves you well if you treat everything that way. You are paying attention to what you are doing and how you are putting your energy into that process.
To learn more about Chuck, his coffins and about end of life options, click here.