Ten years ago, Michael Scheetz was asked to build a custom cedar coffin for a co-worker’s mother.
“His mom was 98 years old, so he was just getting ready,” Scheetz said. “She was in good health, but he wanted something ready to go when the time came.”
Since that initial coffin, Scheetz continued to build his portfolio of custom caskets and coffins and start American Handcrafter Caskets and Coffins, which has been in business since 2010.
The timing of the first casket that Scheetz made came around the annual Colonial Days celebration, which was held in Provo at the time. During the event, Scheetz exhibited period woodworking by turning bowls and making table legs. Behind his demonstration was the coffin that he just built and “that garnered a lot more attention than anything else I was doing,” Scheetz said. Scheetz received questions on how long it took to make it, how he crafted it, and how much would he sell it for.
“Ever since, I’ve been busy making caskets and coffins.”
Building a coffin was different than the usual requests for Scheetz’s woodworking skills, who works full-time as the laboratory direct at Timpanogos Special Service District.
“I’m the neighborhood hobby woodworker,” Scheetz said with a smile. “Somebody down the street brings me a chair to repair or the lady next door wants me to fix her window.”
Scheetz continues to take on other woodworking projects in his spare time beyond caskets and coffins.
Behind Scheetz’s house in Provo is his workshop. It is lined with hand-tools for woodworking and pieces of coffins and caskets sit against the wall as he methodically moves the hand sander down the length of a pine casket. The particular simple pine casket that Scheetz was working on was going to be used for a display at Pioneer Village.
His attention to detail is evident as he rubs his hands along the smooth sides and shows the blacksmith nails, which are used in many of his caskets and coffins. There are often coffins and caskets at different stages of assembly around the shop and property. Inside the Scheetz house sat a completed custom casket with custom handles that are designed to remember the way a rancher lived his life.
“We’re just waiting for the call to deliver it,” Scheetz said.
Each casket or coffin usually takes Scheetz between three to five days to complete. This does depend on the urgency of finishing the casket or coffin.
“It’s one thing to meet somebody who is just getting ready and they are going to store it in their garage for a while and then it’s on the other end of the spectrum when someone says, ‘Hey, I need one right now,’” Scheetz said.
Each client browses Scheetz’s portfolio and is able to discuss the basics of each design. After the initial decisions are made, clients can add additional stains, handles, lining and other details to the casket or coffin. Scheetz’s wife, Wanda, helps with the custom lining that is the final component of a casket or coffin.
Scheetz’s views his handcrafted caskets and coffins as a way to be more involved in the death process and a return to “days gone by traditions.” Scheetz sees some of these traditions coming back, “people want to be more environmentally conscious of what goes in the ground” and an opportunity to be more connected with the death process.
“Our society and this culture of death has become more and more hands-off and there is less and less family participation.”
Scheetz understands that there are mortuary and funeral homes for those who need them, but wants people to know that they can do their own service, they can create their own memorials, and be more involved in the process. Scheetz channels that view in his woodworking and allows for the individuals or family members to be involved as much as they like in the process. Scheetz allows clients to be a part of the woodworking process and work side-by-side with him in the workshop to create a casket or coffin.
This ability to interact with his clients and their families and build a relationship is an essential piece to the business, in his opinion.
“I like the woodworking, doing craftsmanship, showing my skills, but the interaction with people was the unexpected part,” Scheetz said, which he didn’t expect to appreciate as much as he does. He explains that all of his caskets and coffins receive his artistry and expertise, but he is also putting his heart and soul into the final product because of the relationships that he builds.
Creating custom caskets and coffins has brought Scheetz some of the most interesting and touching conversations, which elevate his woodworking beyond just a trade.
“A lady came and sat with me and we went over my portfolio and some of the options and we were making choices, and she turned to me and said that she just learned that she has six weeks left.”
“You know that is really a spiritual moment, no way else to describe it,” Scheetz said.
These decisions on the style of the casket or coffin are often some of the last decisions for loved ones and that importance is not lost on Scheetz.
“To make something for somebody that I’ve met and now I know or I know what this family is going through or I know what this person is facing. Then, it makes a huge difference in my work and what I put into my work.”
He often finds it hard to put a price on these custom caskets and coffins, because he just wants to give to the family or individual.
The role that Scheetz plays brings him close to families and individuals he may not have met otherwise. Scheetz has found himself bonding with his clients and has attended funerals for those who have purchased a custom casket or coffin from him.
“You get a lot of thanks, handshakes, hugs, pats on the backs and a lot of appreciation,” Scheetz said. “It is humbling. Extremely rewarding.”