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Home business: From cabins to caskets.

Several years ago, my wife and I moved to an isolated farm in the rolling hills of eastern Iowa. For us, the move represented the fulfillment of a long-time dream to get closer to the land, to farm and garden and to simplify our lives. The farm had everything we sought in a piece of land: seclusion, woods, meadows and streams and expansive views.

From my youth onward, I have always been inspired by the lessons that nature has to teach, especially when those lessons come out of silence and reflection. Part of my ambition was to create a wilderness retreat facility for people who were inclined to spend time alone in the woods.

The farm (Mineral Crossing) was perfect for such an enterprise. It was beautiful, diverse and grand in scale. My idea was to build a series of rustic but comfortable one-room cabins on remote corners of the property. These quaint hermitages, designed for single habitation, could be used by nature lovers who wanted to confront the essential facts of life in solitude. We were committed to providing this service free of charge to anyone who would come.

Our plan was to build one hermitage at a time. I purchased the tools, a carpentry textbook, and went to work. The first hermitage was soon completed, and winter set in. I realized that all the new tools I had purchased for hermitage construction would be idle during the long winter months.

I began to wonder if there was some revenue-generating service I could render with these tools and newly developed woodworking skills -- something that might help subsidize our non-profit retreat center. I elected to implement an idea that had been germinating for some time -- a cottage industry that manufactured traditional, hand-crafted wooden caskets.

I have always disliked the caskets morticians sell. They are unsightly, cheaply produced and exorbitantly priced. I suspected others felt the same way and that perhaps there would be a small market for a well-made and tasteful casket, a product that expressed usefulness and simplicity. I was right.

No sooner had I made one or two caskets than the orders began pouring in. They came first from friends, then local folks, then from around the region and eventually nationwide. Finally, I had to transform the entire bottom floor of our dairy barn into a woodworking shop and recruit a couple of local craftsmen to help meet the orders.

This endeavor forced me to acquire a rapid education in the "death care business," as it is known to insiders. The funeral industry is secretive, tightly controlled, and a behemoth. As of 1997, it is a $10 billion a year business. Consumer prices continue to rise sharply, partly because giant companies are buying local funeral homes and escalating the prices.

In the casket end of the business, just two companies make over half the caskets sold in the U.S., and they sell only to licensed funeral providers. Even worse, the funeral industry has effectively institutionalized the burial and grieving process -- all in the name of making a buck.

Morticians are scornful of what I do. Obviously, it is greatly to their advantage to sell a casket. It is usually the single most costly item in the funeral service. Funeral providers mark up their caskets 500 percent or more before they sell them to distraught customers. Big money is made on casket sales. Fortunately for the public, the Federal Trade Commission established a rule in 1994 which protects a consumer's right to provide his or her own casket without being charged a handling fee.

Our cottage industry (Mineral Crossing Casket Company) grew out of an idea that a reasoned approach to death and an honorable burial should not cause undue financial burden to anyone. Nobody should have to borrow money to bury their loved one. Why is it unrealistic to think that a dignified funeral service should cost under $1,000? People all across the country are beginning to see the absurdity of spending thousands of dollars on a box that is used once and then placed in the ground forever.

The caskets I make are completely crafted out of solid wood -- pine, maple, walnut, etc. We make three styles of caskets that come with many lid and handle options. Each casket has an attractive muslin liner stuffed with fresh-smelling straw that we grow here on the farm. I often retrofit a casket to be used as a closet or bookshelf until its time of need comes. My standard casket sells for $650, and I can ship them anywhere in the country.

Locally, I have become known as a champion of simple burial and death education. Many people don't know that in Iowa one doesn't have to enlist the services of a funeral provider. Many states have similar guidelines. Laws need to be followed, but it isn't difficult to get a death certificate signed, acquire a burial transfer permit, and do the work of a mortician yourself.

Check out the laws of your own state. You might be surprised by what you learn. For instance, a body doesn't have to be embalmed unless it has a rare disease. Also, there is no law requiring an expensive burial vault. There are a couple of books available for people seeking instruction in simple burial and death education. One is Dealing Creatively with Death by Earnest Morgan. Another is Caring for the Dead, Your Final Act of Love by Lisa Carlson.

I like the idea of being buried on my own land, and my state permits such a practice. Chances are that your state also allows it. If you are interested in a simple burial and have any questions, give me a call at (319) 673-7481, and I'll help point you in the right direction. It's time to put some simplicity and honor back into our burial rituals. It's called going back to basics.
SAM MULGREW
708 92ND ST.
MONMOUTH, IOWA 52309
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Title Annotation:planning simple burial on one's own land
Author:MULGREW, SAM
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Words:991
Previous Article:The Intentional Peasant: Those funny little green things.
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