The Last Project - Popular Woodworking Magazine

The Last Project

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Personal Favorites, Required Reading, Woodworking Blogs

When I was in Charleston, S.C., last week one of the tour guides said something about cabinetmaker Thomas Elfe that stuck with me.

“Most of his work is buried in the ground.”

One of the primary jobs of early joiners and cabinetmakers was building coffins, and these projects have always fascinated me. Frank Klausz built plenty of coffins in his native Hungary. Chinese woodworkers make coffins out of one single log, like a dugout canoe. And they’re illegal.

And one of our former illustrators, John McCormick, tried to go into business selling inexpensive pine coffins that functioned as bookshelves up until the time you needed them for your earthly remains.

And today the New York Times published an interesting story about the rise of home funerals and featured the work of a Maine woodworker who builds coffins that double as almost Ikea-like bookshelves. (Honestly, the bookshelves built by our illustrator years ago were uber-creepy. “Yes, I decorated this room in the Early Elvira Style.”)

As I get older, however, the idea of building my own coffin appeals to me. I couldn’t imagine paying $6,000 for a commercially-made highboy while I’m alive, so why should I ask my family to shell out those big bucks for a coffin after I’m gone?

Of course, I know what my wife will say.

“You’ll never have it done in time.”

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 10 comments
  • Clay Silsby

    My niece, brother and I built a box for my father’s ashes. We used walnut that had been sawn on an antique sawmill powered my dad’s steam traction engine. The hand-forged nails we used were made in an early 20th century blacksmith shop that he and some friends reconstructed as a museum display. Unquestionably, this was the most rewarding woodworking project I have ever completed.

  • Michael A. Shelley

    I know someone who uses their casket as a coffee table. Personally, I’d prefer a fantasy coffin like those at the National Museum of Funeral History. Check out the casket factory photos as well — it looks better in person.

  • Gye Greene


    You can tell your wife that if you haven’t finished your coffin ”in time”, they can flip over your English workbench and nail plywood to the sides, end, and top.


    (**That** should light a fire under your feet…!)


  • B.L.Zeebub

    I’ve never been a fan of the bones in a box routine our society and culture values so dearly. I’ve yet to drive by a graveyard and wonder what the property would look like with a resort, a subdivision or even a golf course built on it.

    I’m going for the ashes in a coffee can myself, to be distributed by those that loved me in any way they deem fitting. Selah. Still the whole "oblong box" thing creeps me out too.

    Before I decided to get "toasted" I told my wife that I wanted a casket with a bell on it, the kind they used to build a hundred years ago as a way for the previously thought to be dead to ring before they were interred. You know, just in case. BUT I wanted mine to play a tune via a remote so she could have some fun with it at the funeral. HA!


  • Sheldon Funk

    "filing cabinet-style mausoleums"
    A stronger argument for getting good at tight, well fitted, not overcut dovetails has never been made 🙂

  • Luke Townsley

    Yeah, and at your funeral, all of your woodworking friends would be crawling under the casket to check the joinery and taking measurements and pictures.

    Your wife would probably just auction it off to the highest bidder and put you in one of those uber-creepy pine boxes.

  • Ed Furlong


    Your wife and mine must twin sisters of different mothers–I practically spit up my joe when I read the imagined comment by your beloved!

    I have seen some pretty cool reliquaries for ashes at funerals, since, sad to say, I get to go to more and more of them.

    Another option is the filing cabinet-style mausoleums, very popular as burial grounds get harder to come by. Think of it, your loved ones could come by from time to time, open it up and admire your handicraft, or critique your joinery!

  • Sean

    Uh, that’s cremation (not cream). By the way, I understand that the box,urn, what have you, for an average sized adult needs to be only around 200 to 300 cubic inches in volume.

  • Sean

    If creamation was an option, a box large enough to hold one’s ashes would be much easier to live with until needed.

  • Derek Cohen

    The question is, Christopher, where will you store it once you have built it?

    I can just see your coffin leaning against the wall alongside the back door, a little flap-door cut in the bottom so that it can double as a kennel..

    Or in the livingroom as a coffee table …

    Add legs and a sun lamp and you have your own solarium..

    The mind boggles.

    Regards from Perth


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