Viewing the Film Dying Green and the Reflections of an Audience

Last month I had the opportunity to attend a community event entitled, Exploring Green Burial - Becoming The Tree, at the Goodman Community Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The 2012 documentary film, Dying Green, was the centerpiece of the evening presented by Walking Each Other Home, a Madison group dedicated to empowering families in caring for their own after death. The 27-minute film details the twenty-years-and-running story of Dr. Billy Campbell, his conservation cemetery at Ramsey Creek Preserve, and his vision to use natural burials as a means to conserve land. Rather than comment on the film, I’d like to share my observations of the audience and their reaction to the topic of natural burials.

Initially, the number of people that showed up to see a film on death and funerals impressed me. There were more than 200 people in attendance crowding the room. The film was followed by a panel of guest speakers including Kevin Corrado and Shedd Farley from Natural Path Sanctuary in Verona, Wisconsin joined by Selena Fox and Sharon Stuart representing Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wisconsin. By a show of hands more than 80% of the audience was aged 60 or older. [Insert your favorite comment about baby-boomers here.]

I was surprised, at least initially, that there were no funeral directors present or invited to the panel.  While the presentation was hosted by a group of individuals intent on becoming a resource for families interested in “home funerals” I was disappointed there wasn’t a licensed funeral director in attendance to field many of the questions. The audience asked the same questions many of us in funeral service have entertained concerning the laws and regulations regarding burial vaults, caskets, and embalming. To the credit of the cemeterians on the panel, they were careful not to elaborate on matters of the law concerning the disposition of human remains in Wisconsin.

What impressed me most were the comments from the audience exposing their motivations and genuine intentions in planning natural burials. I’ve read many of these statistics and observations before, but experiencing these tones firsthand in a room full of people eager to  talk about their own death was new to me. Neither religion nor family tradition was relevant in making end-of-life choices in this audience. And while cost was of interest, paying less than a typical funeral was not a concern.  This audience wasn’t necessarily looking for ways to save money.  They were, however, looking for ways to save the environment. In fact, there was no hesitation from the audience at the $3000 cost of a burial at the Natural Path Sanctuary. In fact, some even applauded the notion that a $2500 donation to the sanctuary would be used for land conservation practices at the preserve.

For more than 45 minutes the audience quizzed the panel of cemeterians with an underlying tone, aside from concern for the environment, in their queries. “Can I transport my mother’s dead body from hospice to the cemetery in my own car?” asked one member of the audience while another quipped, “Why can’t my family do my funeral?” to which the panel answered, “Yes.” Many in the audience were surprised to learn that, in Wisconsin like many states, a member of immediate family may act as the funeral director without the services of a licensed professional.

This audience, like baby boomers across the land, want alternatives. Above all else, they want an end-of-life plan that is smart for the planet. They will opt for sustainability over tradition and may very well be willing to spend a few extra dollars to have it their way. They want alternatives to embalming. They want to be laid out at home for visitation. And the general sentiment is they can’t have it their way at a funeral home. They are frustrated that funeral service isn’t offering such alternatives.

Now we might find solace in thinking this was just one event, in one small Midwestern town, with an audience of 200 anti-estabishment folks. Let’s have a look at some real data. See the enclosed figure for the trend in people researching “home funeral” since 2004 when Google started collecting this data.  This chart is a comparative analysis showing not the total number of searches, but the comparison of searches for different topics. I added a controversial term, “obamacare” to set the bar.  The highest point in the chart sets the bar at 100—for Obamacare this was October of 2013 when open enrollment began.  This bar represents the research by more than 10 million people considering enrollment.

Figure 1 - Interest in home funerals has grown more than 4X in the last decade.

Figure 1 - Interest in home funerals has grown more than 4X in the last decade.

Notice that search interest in the terms cremation, natural burial, and green burial are minuscule in comparison to “home funerals” and Obamacare. Not only is “home funeral” researched 50 times more frequently than cremation, but with a stunning upward trend in the last ten years. People researching home funerals has increased more than four times in the last decade and is far greater than those researching cremation. Regarding green/natural burial, there is no comparison to measure—these terms measure 0 on the whole chart in comparison to home funerals. (One last observation… all the spikes on the trend line for home funeral occur in January.)

I love big data. My career with IBM has taught me a lot about data. I can explore and analyze this chart of Google search trends. The real wake-up call for me was being in a room of 200 people making their cases for planning a home funeral. Not because they want to take the director out of their funerals, but because they want alternatives. Their key motivator for wanting alternatives?  The environment. Not religion. Not tradition. Not even personalization. The environment.



Designing an Experience

Focusing on the needs of family to design an enriched casket selection experience.

The gallery displays more than 30 different styles of caskets in styles both vintage and contemporary in a variety of colors and finishes. 

The gallery displays more than 30 different styles of caskets in styles both vintage and contemporary in a variety of colors and finishes. 


design   verb \di-ˈzīn\

: to plan and make decisions about (something that is being built or created) : to create the plans, drawings, etc., that show how (something) will be made

: to plan and make (something) for a specific use or purpose 


There is no guarantee in life as certain as death. Despite the inevitable, making end-of-life arrangements for a person we love is not an easy task. It is uncomfortable. The death of someone close to us reminds us of our own mortality and of those we have loved and lost. 

When my wife, Julie, and I purchased the former Koepsell-Murray Funeral home at 109 N. Lincoln Avenue last summer to create a gallery for our growing casket and furniture company, we embraced our opportunity to "design an experience” around the needs of a family making funeral arrangements. This would be no trivial task; we accepted the challenge and have learned a few things along the way worth sharing.

With keys in hand for the first time in June, I explored the empty building alone. I needed to experience the space in its emptiness and begin to imagine its transformation. Lucky for us, the former funeral parlor was already beautifully decorated with a soothing elegance and a practical selection of wool carpets, papered walls, and painted woodwork. Something occurred to me that summer day as I lay flat on the floor staring up at the ceiling. (There was no furniture.) In those few moments it became clear to me that of all the things that needed to happen to transform this place into a casket gallery, the single most important idea was understanding the needs of the families that would walk through those doors. Who are they? What are they feeling when they enter this space? What questions do they have? What positive outcomes could we achieve together?

Various Situations

Creating a positive experience in our casket and furniture gallery means we need to be prepared to welcome the many different people who will come through our doors for various reasons. It could be a recent widower accompanied by his funeral director. It could be a large family of twenty or more people of all ages seeking to honor Grandpa, or a middle-aged married couple pre-planning their funerals so their children won’t have to.  Yet other people will come to see Arts & Crafts furniture, Edison lighting, and the wide selection of eco-friendly natural oil wood finishes and milk paint with no interest in caskets whatsoever.

Juxtaposition with Life, Art, Music

We sought to create a very different experience; one that is exceptional, memorable, classy, comfortable, and practical. We carefully designed our gallery to include lots of green plants to balance our handcrafted caskets. The walls are filled with large exhibits of photography art with plenty of seating throughout the gallery to create a environment more like an art gallery and less like a retail store. Prices are visible, but not prominently placed on everything as in a furniture store. The art captures breathtaking scenes from nature and includes happy people both young and old. Trees are an underlying theme everywhere throughout the gallery. The art, lighting, plants, and music all come together in a subtle fashion as a reminder of life. After all, the primary goal of funeral service is to help the living get on with living.

Horizontal and Vertical Alignment

Before we acquired furniture, plants, and art, our space was filled with caskets on carts. Consider a room full of caskets, all closed. Imagine how all of the visual lines in your field of view are horizontal. Without any vertical lines to slow your eyes and break the flow, scanning the room from right to left and back again was, at best unemotional, and otherwise uncomfortable. We made design choices to add vertical breaks with window treatments, tall plants, tall art pieces, floor lamps, and backdrops with vertically oriented wood grain. When we expect a family to visit, we open most of the caskets.

Our Naturalist pine casket with Deep Forest interior displayed on our chapel furniture.

Our Naturalist pine casket with Deep Forest interior displayed on our chapel furniture.

The Importance of Explaining Why

Being transparent about our individual motivations does not come naturally.  I’ve borrowed a chapter from the teachings of Simon Sinek and his “Golden Circle of Motivation” to overcome my own inhibitions about sharing what drives me.  There are a lot of things I could do for a living—some of which are far easier and make more money than what I’ve chosen to do. Mr. Sinek explains that it is easy to tell people “What” you do. I build eco-friendly, handcrafted, locally-sourced caskets and furniture. This is the outer ring of his golden circle of motivation.  Imagine a bullseye target with three concentric circles.  The middle circle is “How” which is only slightly more difficult to explain.  But the bullseye, the very center of our motivation, is “Why” it is that we do what we do. When we understand “Why” a person chooses to do whatever it is that they do, we trust them and become loyal to that person and their cause.  

The golden circle of motivation.  Sharing your motivation, "WHY" we do what we do, fosters long-lasting personal relationships.

The golden circle of motivation.  Sharing your motivation, "WHY" we do what we do, fosters long-lasting personal relationships.

I build caskets for several reasons. I want families who care about sustainability, biodegradability, carbon footprint, local-sourcing, or toxic pollution to have an alternative choice in their end-of-life plan. I want to help families at a time of loss and transition. I have learned that when a family is involved in selecting a unique, handcrafted, or personalized casket, shroud, or urn, the collaboration among family and friends helps individuals begin to heal. I’ve also witnessed the solace that a family experiences when a loved one has pre-planned their funeral, having made choices consistent with their values in advance so their families did not have to make those choices.

Being of service to family, friends, and the great people of our state-wide community is a large part of what drives me; but the largest component of “Why” I build caskets is much more personal. For every casket we build, we plant 100 trees in Wisconsin. We plant trees in both our urban settings and in our state forests. We plant trees to sequester carbon and to restore wild life habitats. In 2013, I made a commitment to the people of Wisconsin to plant ten million trees in my lifetime. And above all else, I have made the same promise to my two children, Lilian and Cecelia. It is this promise that is at the very center of my golden circle of motivation—and it is very personal.

When a family comes through the doors of our gallery, there is a theme throughout the gallery that is sometimes subtle and other times stated more boldly. This theme is evident in the art, plants, and furnishings and tells the story of “Why” we do what we do.

Individual Engagement

I’ve observed several families come though our doors since opening in September. Often one or two members of the family is visibly uncomfortable at first. They hesitate to enter the main gallery “where all the caskets are” and stay in the Stickley Dining hall or seek refuge in the Leopold Family lounge. These spaces were designed and furnished for exactly this purpose. Families can enter our gallery to experience our handcrafted furniture, enjoy the art, learn about natural wood finishes and milk paint, or play with young children next to the toy box in the lounge. Several people have commented that it is easy to forget they are in a casket gallery because there is so much more to do and learn. Much like the casket and furniture stores of years passed, there is a lot of space and content in the gallery that is engaging for individuals not ready, or not comfortable, putting their hands on caskets. 

The Aldo Leopold Family Lounge is a safe, quiet, place to relax.  Guests can read by the fireplace or visit over a complementary cup of coffee.  There is a toy box in the corner for children to entertain themselves.

The Aldo Leopold Family Lounge is a safe, quiet, place to relax.  Guests can read by the fireplace or visit over a complementary cup of coffee.  There is a toy box in the corner for children to entertain themselves.

Emotional Connection

Unlike a typical purchase decision where we tend to think logically and objectively (like buying a car), planning a funeral catches us in a more subjective state of mind. We're thinking emotionally, not rationally, when we lose someone we love. This is normal and largely unavoidable even for the most stoic of individuals. In our gallery there is a display card on each casket that tells a story. Each story is written in the first person from my own personal and emotional experience. The story is less about the casket and more about life and how our individual experiences make us each who we are. These stories help the reader identify with their own personal experiences and often remind us of someone we know. 

Values vs. Choices

Feedback from those who have attended our open house events or have explored our casket gallery and furniture store has only been positive. The families who come to our gallery to select a casket—be it an at-need situation or a pre-planning visit—will discover a carefully thought out experience. One that we hope is helpful, comforting, and above all else, sincere. To those families who have already chosen a Northwoods’ casket, we thank you for your support. Together, we’ll continue building a company that values locally sourced materials and talent, sustainability, and the importance of planting trees.

What happens when you choose a Northwoods’ casket?

Locally sourced. Eco-friendly. Handcrafted. Reclaimed. Biodegradable.

American Heritage Pine casket in Olde Wood.

American Heritage Pine casket in Olde Wood.

Like many Americans, you probably like these words. The big box stores know it and go to great lengths to entice consumers of food, clothing, and durable goods with marketing messages that appeal to your inner thinking that your purchase decision just might be doing some good in the world.

For a small, locally focused, family business like ours, these words have far more meaning than our marketing department.  (We don't actually have a marketing department.) These words characterize the very essence of what we do and why we do it.

So you may be wondering, what is the real impact when a family decides to use a casket made by the Northwoods Casket Company. Rest assured the impact is significant and measurable.

We plant 100 trees for every casket we make.

Planting trees isn't a temporary marketing gimmick. This is a permanent commitment written into our business plan and fully embraced by every member of our team. We plant trees in state parks, state forests, and state natural areas. We work with the Wisconsin Department of Urban Forestry to plant trees in cities, villages, and townships to promote Wisconsin's healthy urban forest. For every individual that pledges to use a Northwoods' casket or cremation urn, we Plant it Forward by planting the trees at our next spring or fall planting.  Consider Planting it Forward with us today!

A craftsman makes a living for two days.

Jonas (left) and Harold (right) discussing details.

Jonas (left) and Harold (right) discussing details.

Every one of our caskets is handcrafted in Wisconsin. We have several craftsmen on our team--11 making caskets, cremation urns, and furniture at the time of this writing--who work in their own workshops with their own tools. On average, it takes two days of work to build a single wooden casket shell. Our craftsmen work in small batches of 6 to 10 casket shells at a time. By choosing a Northwoods' casket, your family guarantees two days of work for a Wisconsin woodworking craftsman.

Our seamstress, Sally, always smiling.

Our seamstress, Sally, always smiling.

A seamstress makes a living for one day.

Each casket is carefully tailored and upholstered by our full-time seamstress. We use only biodegradable and natural fabrics. On average, it takes about one day to make the parts and fully upholster a casket. By choosing a Northwoods' casket, your family creates one full day of rewarding work for our seamstress, Sally.

A wood finisher makes a living wage for one day.

We take great care in all of our finishing techniques to be good to our team and the environment.  This means that none of our finishes contain toxic or harmful chemicals, and all are 100% VOC free. This also means it takes patience and 6-10 days of drying time to put the finishes on our caskets.  Rediscovering the wood finishing techniques once mastered by 15th century craftsmen has been both challenging and rewarding. This is a skilled job for two of our part-time team members. On average, there is a full day of labor in between those 6-10 days of drying time. By choosing a Northwoods' casket, your family creates one full day of a living wage job for a finisher.

Jeff applying a white milk paint glaze finish to a raised panel oak casket shell.

Jeff applying a white milk paint glaze finish to a raised panel oak casket shell.

The carbon footprint of your funeral is reduced by 1600 to 2000 lbs of CO2.

Every activity on the planet either sequesters or emits carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that can be measured in pounds (or tons) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). Trees and plants use photosynthesis to sequester CO2 from the air into plant mass. When we consume energy or burn fossil fuels to produce things we emit carbon.

The carbon footprint to produce and transport a typical steel casket is 2000 lbs. of CO2e. A manufactured wood casket is 1600 to 2000 lbs. of CO2e.  By locally sourcing sustainably harvested woods, air-drying the lumber, tailoring with natural and biodegradable fabric, and finishing with eco-friendly natural oils and milk paint, a typical Northwoods' casket has a carbon footprint of about 200 lbs. of CO2e.  (Our Simple Pine Box is less than 50 lbs. CO2e).

Jonas Zahn planting a tree on Center Street in the City of Beaver Dam.

Jonas Zahn planting a tree on Center Street in the City of Beaver Dam.

And then we plant those 100 trees!  Those 100 seedling trees sequester 200 lbs. of CO2 in their first year of growth.  After 20 years, those trees continue to sequester more than 2000 lbs. of CO2 annually. When your family chooses a Northwoods' casket, you're making a measurable impact in your carbon footprint that will continue to pay it forward for many years.

Local support for the city of Beaver Dam and area community.

The City of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin is our home. Our casket and furniture company resides in the city's downtown. Our team is active in downtown revitalization efforts, tree planting, and beautification projects. The Northwoods Casket Co. regularly contributes to local non-profit organizations including Downtown Beaver Dam, Inc., Beaver Dam Area Arts Association, Beaver Dam Area Community Theater, Beaver Dam Lake Improvement Association, as well as local churches and schools. Every member of our team participates in community events. When your family chooses a Northwoods' casket, you help support a healthy local economy and community.

Planting trees with kids for Arbor day at Washington Elementary School.

Planting trees with kids for Arbor day at Washington Elementary School.

Waxed Finishes, Naturally

Rediscovering the natural beauty of wood with sustainable, non-toxic, zero-VOC natural waxed finishes.

This is one of a four-part series on natural, non-toxic, eco-friendly wood finishes.

In the process of building a sustainable and eco-friendly casket company, we’ve had to learn a lot about eco-friendly wood finishes. The “Plain Pine Box” appeals to only so many. We’ve learned how to achieve a wide variety of beautiful wood finishes without using harmful chemicals. Most of our learning has been a matter of rediscovering the historic techniques mastered by 16th century English craftsman. In this article we’ll briefly cover the history, chemistry, and useful techniques for achieving natural waxed finishes.

Wax finishes will bring out natural character in wood as well as help seal and protect the surface.

Wax finishes will bring out natural character in wood as well as help seal and protect the surface.

Waxes have been used for centuries to seal and protect wood surfaces. Waxes are an effective sealer and provide a durable and protective coating. Conventional manufacturing has shifted to varnishes and polyurethane finishes that can be applied with spray techniques. Whereas wax finishes require some elbow grease and patience to get comfortable with the technique. In general, waxes must be first applied in a circular motion with an applicator pad, cloth, brush, or sponge. Within a minute or two wipe the wax in the same direction as the wood grain. And finally, buff the wax to a shine once the wax has begun to cure or dry.

Buffing a wax finish takes some getting used to. You can buff waxed wood surfaces with a soft lint-free cotton cloth, a polyester auto-buffing cloth, or even an old polyester t-shirt or slacks. I prefer polyester because it is mildly abrasive and not absorbent. The trick is in the timing and pressure.  Buff too soon and you will smear the wax around.  Wait too long and the wax will be too hard to buff to a nice shine. Buff lightly with the same pressure you’d pet your cat or dog. Let the rag to the work. The more expert you get at applying the wax, the longer you will be comfortable waiting to buff—some experts wait hours to buff after application. Multiple coats can be applied to build up a thick protective finish.

Clear Carnuba Wax is easy to use and durable.

Clear Carnuba Wax is easy to use and durable.

My favorite wax is clear carnauba wax. Carnauba wax is made by pressing the leaves of a palm tree. This wax is what is used to make M&M chocolate candy shells, lipstick, and automotive polish. It is available in bars, flakes, and paste. The bars and flakes are either pure or blended with beeswax. The paste form maintains the wax in suspension in a solvent—typically turpentine. In paste form, carnauba wax is classified as either a Low VOC or VOC product. Once applied and the solvent has evaporated, the finished wood is 100% free of VOCs (important for making children’s toys or furniture). You can make your own wax paste with carnauba wax flakes and orange oil solvent or lemon juice.

Warm Black Wax is 100% VOC-free.

Warm Black Wax is 100% VOC-free.

There is a newly patented wax product produced exclusively by The Real Milk Paint company. This wax is a proprietary blend of walnut oil, carnauba wax, and beeswax. They offer two colors: Warm Black and Chestnut Brown. These ingredients polymerize with exposure to the air to form a tight-sealing almost plastic-like surface. Water will bead up on this surface and it is 100% VOC free—perfect for table surfaces. Apply with a cotton cloth in ultra thin coats and let dry 24 hours. Then buff lightly with steel wool for a very smooth shiny surface. Apply multiple coats to your liking.

All of these topcoat finishes can be layered for added protection, but not in any order.  Finishes that require a porous surface must be applied first before others that seal the surface.  For example, we often use milk paint + tung oil + wax.  Wax can be layered on wax, but once the surface is waxed you could not apply more paint or oil as the surface will be sealed and there will no longer be a porous texture for milk paint or natural oil to penetrate and bond.

For more information on eco-friendly finishes including real milk paint, natural waxes, and non-toxic burnishing glazes check out our blog or ask us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/NorthwoodsCasket.
 

Stained Finishes, Naturally

Rediscovering the natural beauty of wood with sustainable, non-toxic, zero-VOC natural stained finishes.

This is one of a four-part series on natural, non-toxic, eco-friendly wood finishes.

In the process of building a sustainable and eco-friendly casket company, we’ve had to learn a lot about eco-friendly wood finishes. The “Plain Pine Box” appeals to only so many. We’ve learned how to achieve a wide variety of beautiful wood finishes without using harmful chemicals. Most of our learning has been a matter of rediscovering the historic techniques mastered by 16th century English craftsman. In this article we’ll briefly cover products and useful techniques for achieving natural stained wood finishes.

This pine casket is stained naturally with tung oil, orange oil, with iron oxide and Gilsonite pigments.

This pine casket is stained naturally with tung oil, orange oil, with iron oxide and Gilsonite pigments.

Staining wood includes techniques that expose, enhance, or otherwise highlight the natural characteristics of wood. Stains highlight the natural grain pattern of wood enhancing, masking, or changing the color with reactive chemistry or color pigment mixed in the stain. Typically, stain techniques must be followed by some form of sealant or protective finish. Commercially available stains are available in hundreds of colors and fall into either oil-based or water-based categories—all of which contain VOCs or other harmful chemicals and vapors. Many are unpleasant to work with and require ventilation and care while handling them.

Dark raw tung oil is our favorite staining finish.

Dark raw tung oil is our favorite staining finish.

There are three categories of staining recipes and techniques we’ll cover in this short article that I like to refer to as the following:

  1. Adding pigment to natural oils,
  2. Glazing with milk paint, and
  3. Dissolving chemical concoctions.

Each of these techniques will introduce you to a whole book of recipes for endless experimentation and amazing results.  All of these techniques employ natural, biodegradable, non-toxic, eco-safe, VOC-free ingredients with the exception of some of those in the “chemical” category that produce toxic solutions that must be handled with care.

Adding pigment to natural oils is perhaps the easiest way to stain and protect wood in one step. Adding iron oxide (powdered rust) to tung oil or linseed oil will yield a beautiful red stain much like what you’d expect from a redwood deck stain color. Another natural pigment, Gilsonite, is as black as obsidian and creates a beautiful aged dark look on pine and oak. Any natural pigment used by painters can be added to natural oils to your liking and brushed into wood. Covering the stain coat with a second coat of oil will help encapsulate the pigment. Other topcoat techniques including waxes and burnishing pastes are effective as well.

Glazing with milk paint is an easy way to add color to wood without covering up the natural beauty of the wood grain.  Start with any color of milk paint and dilute at least one-to-one with water. Dilute further for lighter staining. I prefer to use a foam brush to push the stain onto the wood instead of pulling like you would with a paint brush. For large projects, consider using a large sponge. Apply the paint and let dry for 24-48 hours before applying a protective finish of natural oil, wax, or burnishing paste.

Creating your own homemade stain with chemistry can open up a whole category of concocting your own solutions. White vinegar is an inexpensive, eco-safe chemical to start with.  Try leaving some rusty nails in vinegar or steel wool for a few days and the metal will release iron oxides into the vinegar. The result is an effective stain that will add beautiful browns to your wood. Some old copper wire salvaged from an electric motor will take several weeks in vinegar, but the green-blue and teal color is worth the wait. 

Vegetables are an ancient source of color for staining wood. Try beet juice for bright pink, blueberries for purplish gray, blackberries for bright purple, and vegetable greens for yellows. Blend the whole fruit or vegetable into a paste and mix in 1-2 tablespoons of alum per blender full for a fixer.  Use the paste thick and leave sit on the wood overnight or thin with water for various saturations.

For more information on eco-friendly finishes including real milk paint, natural waxes, and non-toxic burnishing glazes check out our blog or ask us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/NorthwoodsCasket.