One Pine Box at a Time

July 18, 2014

In the afternoon, Don visits the third cabin, which he recently made his workshop. He lifts a pine plank and secures it between two bench vices, checking to see that the grain runs in the right direction. Over one edge, he steadily passes an old-fashioned hand plane, forming a groove in the wood. Pine shavings curl at his feet, reminding him of golden angel hair, and he inhales the woodsy, clean scent of pine, tinged with the perfume of wisteria.

“The sound is mesmerizing,” he says, absorbed in the calming effect of his work. “It feels good, it smells good.” After carving tongues and grooves in several planks, he will fit the panels together to make a simple rectangular box.

The antique Rule of Saint Benedict ordains that monks “shall live by the work of their own hands.” To earn their livelihoods, modern monks often take up crafts that can be made in prayerful solitude and silence using the local resources— harvesting honey, brewing beer, jarring jams. Taking after the monks at new Melleray Abbey in Iowa, Don decided to build coffins. Last summer, he launched his own business, Piedmont Pine Coffins. “People will ask, ‘Isn’t it kind of a morbid thing to get into?’ But it’s like the opposite,” attests Son. “It’s reclaiming a richness to life that we used to have when we cared for and slaughtered our own animals; when we knew where our meat came from and grew our own vegetables; when we gave birth at home and had funerals in our front parlors.”

Built from pine that is locally sourced and milled, don's coffins embody a rustic charm. Pine is economical—his coffins sell for a fraction of the cost of a typical casket—and also biodegradable. In the tradition of manual labor, he builds them entirely by hand and stains them with a natural dye he makes from black-walnut hulls.

The garden is shaped like a circle, and around its circumference, four gates mark each cardinal direction. Each gate is named after a monastic tradition—Basil for hospitality; Benedict for work and prayer; Brendan for adventure; and Buddha for mindfulness.

At the center of this vast green compass, Donald Jr. and his sweetheart, Pam, sit with Don and Niko. They drove over from Durham to visit the farm and bring the kids Easter chocolate. As they sit in the midday sun, they admire the thriving crops, especially the healthy, tall shoots of garlic.

Due to his nerve condition, Donald Jr. moves at a snail’s pace, relying on a walker and the steadying arm of Pam. “This is all temporary,” he says optimistically; he intends to regain most of his mobility and walk normally again.

“What’s all temporary—life?” Don jokes with his father. “You’re going to have to start my coffin pretty soon,” agrees Donald Jr., who has requested cremation. He wants half his ashes sprinkled in Bear Creek, and the rest scattered in the Melleray garden, to kind of “mix and match.”

“What kind of crops should i have them put over? Garlic?” he chuckles saltily. As a member of the death-care community, Don makes an effort to discuss such serious matters with his family. “Our culture doesn’t like to talk about death, and we’d prefer to ignore it,” he says. “When you’re under the gun, you have a dead body on your hands, it’s terrible to make all these plans. You have to talk about it with somebody ahead of time.”

With Piedmont Pine Coffins, Don hopes to nudge Chatham County toward green burial. He thinks his product could appeal to two local demographics: those who are drawn to eco-conscious lifestyles, and the conventional folk who may appreciate traditional burial.

“I think a sacred power surrounds the act of caring for your own dead,” he says. “The only thing that can compare to going through a death as a family is going through a birth.”

Don hopes to make the business sustainable enough so that he can hire several employees and leave his day job teaching ESL for Chatham County schools. In the meantime, he helps families place the mystery of death, one pine box at a time.

A few weeks ago, Don delivered a coffin to a funeral home in Charlotte. The family was there to decorate the lid and line the box with a blanket favored by their deceased loved one, Beth. The next day, the coffin would be loaded into the family car and driven to a church cemetery within walking distance of their farmstead.

Said Beth’s husband, “We’re taking her home.”

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.