Breaking the Silence; Teaching Family Casket Building at the J. Campbell Folk School in 2011

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Blog entry by Mark A. DeCou posted 02-23-2010 07:59 PM 7930 reads 2 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch


UPDATE 3-28-2012:

After Posting my Casket Stories and Photos on Lumberjocks, I have been overwhelmed by the response from readers. There is quite a long thread of folks wanting to build their own casket, or wanting to build one for a close friend or family member.

There are many reasons a person would build their own casket, including saving money, assisting someone with a need they have, doing something custom made because it is special, just because you want to, keeping your hands busy at something during the grieving process, a conversation piece, etc.

All of this email traffic about caskets has relayed to me some really sad stories, and stories of great courage, and exposed a real desire by some do-it-yourself folks to build a casket. And, there isn’t much on the internet or in Print Form to help you get started.

So, All of this internet attention lead me to a teaching invitation at the John Campbell Folk School in the summer of 2011 on the art of casket making. To assist the students in that class I wrote a step-by-step instruction book and drew some drawings, making the Book a total of 78 pages. I tried to use my Book as a way to teach the project, but also teach woodworking skills in the process.

If you would like a copy of my Book/Plans, visit my store to purchase a copy for yourself



I’ve really tried hard during this recession to focus on working, and not typing.

To that end, I’ve not spent much time on Blogs and Project Stories and Forum Topics, like I did the first year after I joined lumberjocks. My goal for the silence has been to work hard and survive as a business entity until the public starts buying expensive furniture pieces again.

So far, I’m doing well, I’m busy, healthy, and booked for several months out. I’ve not been selling much furniture, especially not the time consuming carved things I’ve been asked to build in years past, but I’ve been staying busy with smaller items that people have ordered. And I can attribute 94% of my sales the past 18 months to my lumberjock’s postings, Etsy Sales, and eBay sales, the rest has been word of mouth marketing.

So, I’ve been trying to keep off the computer and just work on the commissioned items, while adding a bedroom onto our house, handling church issues again, and spending some quality & quantity time with my Wife and two kids. I’ve also been helping one of the neighbor kids build a solid-body electric guitar, while I build a Bass guitar, a long-term goal that I’m finally accomplishing. Just a lot going on, and not much time for typing lately.

But, I decided to break the silence this morning with some exciting news….....

Through my postings on lumberjocks of my casket building projects I was invited to teach a class on Casket Building at the J. Campbell Folk School

I believe the class will be called “Hands to Earth: Building a Family Casket.”

Actually, I’m a little scared. My dad was woodshop teacher, and so he’s more experienced in teaching, but I’ll just have to do the best I can. At least I have about 16 months to sweat it out and get the preparations made. I’d like to come up with my own Casket Building handbook, and some drawn plans by that time as well. So, I’ll have plenty to get done between now and then.

The goal of the 5 day class will be for each student to complete a casket, roughly based on my design, allowing for some styling deviations that I feel we can accomplish in the duration of the course. This will be mostly a product-skills based class, but rooted in the process of teaching how a family can build a casket for someone they love.

The class is not intended to teach how to start up a business building caskets, which I get contacted about quite often from internet surfers. Rather, the goal with the J. Campbell Folk School course will be more family oriented, and personal, and designed for me to teach about hand making one casket for someone you love. The process can be very helpful in dealing with the grief associated with a dire diagnosis.

Due to the time it takes to hand build a casket, normally it is not possible to wait for the death to happen and then start the work on the casket. Therefore, normally the situation is one where a family member knows the inevitable is approaching, adn the family has time to make the plans and build the casket. Then the family works together to build a casket for the funeral.

In one case that I worked on, the wife of the sick man couldn’t bring herself to ordering a casket while he was still fighting his cancer, so her family contacted me secretly and asked for me to start work on a casket for them, just in case he lost his fight with Cancer. Two weeks later, I delivered the casket to the furneral home.

From that experience, I saw first hand how stressful the process can be for the survivors. In the case of my Uncle’s casket, the nurses at the hospital reported that he was so pleased to tell them about his nephew building him a a special casket, a Mission Style one, just like he wanted. He called me on the phone and we talked about the wood to use, the design that he wanted, and many other things that he wanted to tell me.

And so the goal of my class will be to teach the skills needed, save some money for the family, and let them work to handle their grief while working in the woodshop together.

The handmade casket can be simple, elaborate, personalized, and perfectly fitting for the situation. The last time I had to help my family pick out a casket, all I could think as I walked slowly through the display/selection room was, ”boy, I wish Grandpa would have let me build one for him…...I could have made it so much more personal for him, and probably saved some money in the process…...”

My grandfather just never could make the decision to have me start on the casket for him, and so I missed out on that opportunity. So, instead, while waiting for the funeral, I built a Hat Rack/Cane Stand/Coat Tree that held his favorite Cowboy Hats, Walking Canes, and Blazer. So, eventhough I didn’t have the chance to build his casket, I did pour my grief into another tribute for his funeral. Incidentally, the Pastor that did the funeral service contacted me after the service and asked to buy the Hat Rack Stand for his office. We made a deal on it, and placed a brass plaque dedicating it to the church in the name of my grandfather.

I work out grief the best when I’m busy building something. I restored a Corvette one time after a breakup of a long-term relationship. Then, a few years later I restored a Harley Davidson one time when my wife and I were having struggles. I just seem to work out grief best by staying busy. I’m hopeful that there are at least 8 other people that are the same way, who would like to come and learn how to build a Casket.

I think for this upcoming Casket Building Class that having some basic woodworking skills are recommended, but we’ll get something built with whomever signs up for the class. The school has a large woodshop that we’ll use, and also an open-air pavillon that we can work in if we need some more room.

The date of the class will be in mid-June 2011, I believe it will run June 12-18, but the date needs to be confirmed.

The School’s 2011 catalog is a few months from being published, but if you would like to have your name put on the waiting list you can either contact me, or the school, and then further information will be sent to you as it is ready.

This class is intended to be small (8 people), so if you are really interested in the class, I’d recommend letting the school know your intentions soon.

The Folk School, and myself, are hopeful that this first class will be the start of a long relationship where I can offer teaching in various skills over the coming years. Over the past three years with my involvement with lumberjocks, I’ve received many questions about whether I could “teach a woodworking class”. I’m hoping that this relationship with the J. Campbell Folk School will be a start to that journey.

That’s it, back to work on some Cherry Bookcases…...

Mark DeCou
email: [email protected]

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

11 comments so far

View Karson's profile


35201 posts in 4908 days

#1 posted 02-23-2010 08:07 PM

Congratulations Mark. I hope that this turns into a profitable sideline.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Appomattox Virginia [email protected]

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 4913 days

#2 posted 02-23-2010 08:15 PM

Thanks Karson, profit isn’t really the goal with the J.Campbell school, or for it’s teachers. It’s a non-profit organization. They do cover some basic costs for me, and pay me a stipend for teaching that will be helpful to cover some of the bills while I’m out of town for the class.

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View patron's profile


13654 posts in 3848 days

#3 posted 02-23-2010 08:37 PM

way to go mark .

your integrity and craftsmanship ,

is an inspiration in itself ,
the chance to work with you ,

will be priceless for those lucky few .

congratulations !

-- david - only thru kindness can this world be whole . If we don't succeed we run the risk of failure. Dan Quayle

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27250 posts in 4329 days

#4 posted 02-23-2010 08:50 PM

Mark, I could not think of anyone better suited to taking on the task of teaching this sort of class than yourself. Passing on our acquired knowledge and skills to others is the essence of what being a member of this site is all about. I cannot imagine any greater compliment than to be asked to do something like this. It is a testament to your skill with, and dedication to, working with wood.

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View SEE's profile


119 posts in 3675 days

#5 posted 02-23-2010 09:19 PM

For those of you who may not be familiar with the John C. Campbell Folk School, it’s a wonderful place located in Brasstown, NC. A friend of mine has been involved with the Folk School for many years. The history of the school is really interesting, too.

Best wishes on your upcoming class, Mark. I’m sure that it will be a memorable week for anyone who attends.

-- Build for the joy of it!

View jockmike2's profile


10635 posts in 4754 days

#6 posted 02-23-2010 10:54 PM

God Bless you and yours Mark. I’m happy to hear things are going well and you are happy. Your are a Blessed person. And deservedly so. I hope you have a great time teaching. You will do wonderful at it, as with anything else you do. Love to the Family, Mike

-- (You just have to please the man in the Mirror) Mike from Michigan -

View Chris Wright's profile

Chris Wright

540 posts in 3988 days

#7 posted 02-24-2010 12:38 AM

I use to live in Brasstown and went to the Folk School on a regular basis. I’m sorry I’m no longer in the area or I’d try to make it to your class.

-- "At its best, life is completely unpredictable." - Christopher Walken

View jm82435's profile


1285 posts in 4249 days

#8 posted 02-24-2010 03:11 AM

I am confident you will do well. I think it is great that people are considering doing this. I should show you some of the ones we have made including for my Mom and Dad out of a canoe he made from orange crates as a boy scout (as per his request).

-- A thing of beauty is a joy forever...

View Napaman's profile


5530 posts in 4584 days

#9 posted 02-24-2010 03:56 AM

Dear Mark…after losing my father this year I cant tell you how the love you give to this class will help so many. My father was a sailor so we spread his ashes on the ocean…but I could not help getting emotional reading your stories above. The grieving process is so different for all persons…but what a great gift—-and the fact that it is the family working together to make the casket is a beautiful thing…

Thank you for doing this…I know we have never met—-but I cant think of a better person to teach this class after “knowing” you the last three years…


-- Matt--Proud LJ since 2007

View mmh's profile


3679 posts in 4230 days

#10 posted 02-24-2010 09:56 AM

This is really quite a beautiful way to learn to deal with death for the living. I’ve often thought that our society doesn’t allow us to fully deal with dying and death and we end up leaving all the important details to complete strangers who usually just want our money.

When my husband’s father died, his mother naturally wanted the best for her husband, but being quite poor, this really seemed unrealistic and I could only think that if a family member could have made him a custom, handmade with TLC casket, it would have been so much more appropriate than a mass manufactured monstrosity that was way over priced.

I’m sure you will do well with the class. It really sound quite rewarding in both the wood working and the lessons of how to deal with death.

-- "They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night." ~ Edgar Allan Poe

View a1Jim's profile


117722 posts in 4084 days

#11 posted 01-24-2016 03:59 PM

Just came across this post ,I’m wondering how it turned out Mark?

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