Dienna Genther handcrafts coffins. She has a simple business philosophy, offering a practical alternative to the expensive products sold by mainstream manufacturers.
“The majority of the people who are interested in my coffins don’t necessarily give a whip about the environment,” explains Genther, owner of The Old Pine Box in Edgewood, N.M. “They buy them because they’re practical and sensible. And more often than not, they’re of the older generation that can’t see the sense of burying $10,000 in the ground.”
The price of most coffins—even “discount” models offered by some online retailers—starts at about $1,000. For high-end models, the cost can reach $10,000 or more. The most extravagant coffins are often made out of expensive metal or exotic wood, fitted with gaskets to seal out the elements and lined with luxurious upholstery and spring mattresses.
Of course, these pricey memorials to the deceased are eventually placed into concrete vaults that are, in turn, buried underground or otherwise tucked away, never to be seen again. Exotic woods, metals and other materials contribute to their environmental impact.
The cost of coffins and her aversion to the idea of people being exploited in their grief were among the principal reasons Genther started her business in 2004. The Old Pine Box sells exactly what the name implies: traditional wooden coffins that usually cost less than $1,000. Some of the models pictured on the company’s website are reminiscent of the types seen in Westerns. Genther also builds custom models to suit an individual’s tastes. One of her clients requested a coffin that would allow him to be buried sitting up. Another wanted his coffin to be a replica of the Batmobile, complete with the dome on top. He was trying to figure out how to put it on a motorized lift so it could drive around during his wake, Genther says.
Genther began her career as a remodel carpenter, those carpenters who do the widest variety of work. After tiring of construction demands and the rainy climate of her native Washington, she decided to move to New Mexico and take up a career that allowed her to use her skills to “make a difference," according to her company’s website.
Genther’s coffins have an obvious marketing appeal to those seeking a “green” burial, something that has become increasingly popular over the last few years. Yet she emphasizes the reduced financial burden on the deceased and their families when explaining her business motives. She speaks soberly and doesn’t come off as an idealist as much as she does a tradesperson. “I wouldn’t call myself a tree-hugger, although I’ve hugged many trees. I love the trees,” she says, “and I don’t see any sense in trashing our environment. But my focus in starting the business was to give people a sensible alternative, to get back to something more practical.” That practical alternative can have a huge impact on the cost of a funeral. According to an article by the American Association of Retired Persons, the coffin can oftentimes be the most expensive part of a funeral.
Most cemeteries require coffins to be placed in vaults, and that's another big expense for grieving families. Genther finds little use for the vaults. “The only purpose that vaults serve is 1) to make money for people that sell them; and 2) to prevent the ground from caving in when the coffin breaks down so they can drive their riding lawnmowers and their backhoes across the cemeteries and not fall in the hole.” In older cemeteries, one may see piles of dirt scattered about the margins of the property. When a coffin collapses, groundskeepers add dirt to the depressions to level it out.
Cremations are another option that have grown in popularity. A cremation can reduce the cost of a funeral by as much as a third, according to a 2002 article in the Journal of Law and Economics. But, for families whose personal preferences or religious beliefs ban cremation, the simple, elegant coffins Genther crafts are intended to offer a dignified and sensibly priced alternative.
According to documents on the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance’s website, coffin vendors often spend a great deal of effort marketing coffins equipped with airtight seals as offering superior protection against the environment. Though this implies the body would be better preserved than in a wood coffin, this is not necessarily the case. Regardless of whether the body is embalmed and placed in an airtight coffin, decay is inevitable. An airtight coffin will encourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which will eventually putrefy the remains, the organization states. Embalming and containers that protect the body from the elements may slow the decay process, but decay is an eventuality, not an option that can be eliminated with a higher-priced coffin.
In a coffin that is not airtight or protected from the elements, the body is free to return to the earth. Genther says this is not a drawback or a compromise. “I don’t see that as a bad thing, as it allows for the natural process, dehydration rather than putrefaction,” she says.
Genther’s coffins have no locking devices and are made without metal hinges and nails. She uses only biodegradable materials in their manufacture. In fact, if a knot in one of the boards happens to fall out, Genther leaves it as it is. “We like to call them ‘spirit holes,’ ” she says. The company encourages the purchase of unfinished coffins but can finish them to the family’s preferences on request. Families often purchase plain coffins and decorate them.
Many funeral homes sell coffins as a part of their services. For those who wish to purchase their coffin from an independent producer, federal law prohibits the funeral home from assessing any extra charges upon the family for patronizing a third-party coffin seller. Where burial regulations are concerned, Genther says a simple wooden casket should present no difficulties for her customers. “So as long as it sits inside that vault, the sky’s the limit,” she says.