A local man sells simple wooden caskets for affordable burials, but some of his customers buy them for Halloween displays, photo props and even furniture.
In the retail world, there's a season for everything. Even coffins.
Fledgling St. Paul entrepreneur Mike Zoff has discovered that Halloween is the perfect time to ramp up his business -- making simple wooden caskets.
He started Affordable Coffins and Artery last January to give people a greener and less expensive option for their dearly departed. Since then, his customers have shown him that the pine boxes also have uses above ground.
Zoff is using a Halloween sale to move his early inventory, stuff he made before he got good at it, he said. He's posted a fluorescent orange sign in the window of his small Smith Street shop, where he sells the simple boxes for as little as $100 for an unfinished model. The most popular request recently has been the old-fashioned toe-pincher coffin, sometimes called a Dracula coffin, which is narrower at the bottom.
One woman ordered a black-stained Dracula coffin to use as a coffee table. Ghoulish shock-rock metal band Impaler used the shop's inventory to shoot photos for its next CD cover. Cheryl Woessner of St. Paul jumped at the chance to add real coffins to her elaborate outdoor Halloween display.
"The coffins will be the perfect addition, especially with someone inside them," she said.
While Zoff says his focus is "giving people a more affordable and sensible option" for burial, it's clear he's enjoying the seasonal boost in traffic to his 300-square-foot showroom.
"Who would've thunk? I'm meeting lots of interesting people, to say the least," said Zoff. "In fact, I haven't had this much fun since my bartending days."
And he's clearly committed to keeping the mood light.
He encourages potential customers to take a test ride.
"People are drawn to the nontraditional nature of the store. This is somebody's final big party -- there's nothing morbid about it," said Zoff, 57.
Zoff is no stranger to the funeral industry. The real estate broker grew up working in a funeral home that his family owned until the mid-1990s. But when his father and sister-in-law died three years ago, he was shocked at how expensive burial had become. That's when he started sawing and staining caskets in his Arden Hills garage/workshop.
Zoff admits the coffins he makes are nothing fancy. That's the point.
He uses mostly pine and plywood -- hardwoods like oak and maple are beyond his ability -- and makes five styles, all suitable for cremation. He offers a biodegradable option that uses wooden pegs instead of metal screws. He can add stain, upholstery, handles and crosses, but emphasizes that his coffins aren't fine cabinetry.
"I keep it simple," he said. "If someone wants to buy a new Cadillac and get buried in it, go for it. I'm the other end of the spectrum."
So far, Zoff has sold about four dozen caskets. His basic model, unfinished plywood with trim, costs $275. The most expensive casket, with stained wood, a split top cover, upholstery and pillows, sold for $780, substantially cheaper than other commercial caskets, which can cost up to $8,000 or more.
While he's not exactly getting rich, Zoff said he gets busier every day.
"This is how I get paid," he said, holding up a thank-you note from a customer.
"I don't know if there's an exact protocol for thanking the coffin maker, but we must say thank you. ... Everything just seemed right. "
The note was written by Zach Bauman, 27, of St. Paul, who decided to have Zoff make his father's casket.
"My dad was never terribly particular about any of the details regarding a funeral, always telling us, 'Just stick me in a pine box,' " Bauman said.
Bauman's father did end up in a pine box -- one stained dark with a natural wood cross affixed to an arch-topped lid.
Some are skeptical
There are no regulations restricting the use of handmade wood caskets for burial in Minnesota, but Zoff advises potential customers to check with cemetery officials where the burial is to take place.
At Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, Assistant Director Donn Christy said it will accept homemade caskets, such as Zoff's, as long as they're sturdy, dignified and have handles.
"That matters because we have to lower the remains into the ground," he said. "Sure, it can be a plain pine box. That's dignified."
Still, many funeral homes discourage coffins purchased elsewhere. Bill McReavy, president of the Washburn-McReavy funeral business, said because many families prepay for services and merchandise, funeral home directors prefer doing business with larger companies that have been around for a long time and have significant liability insurance.
"We need to know that the manufacturer is going to be there 10, 15 years from now," he said. "We're very concerned about quality construction. It has to be nice looking and very strong."
Still, there seems to be growing interest in simplifying caskets. There are do-it-yourself casket-building kits and classes, and other people with a knack for woodworking are getting into the business. For example, the husband-wife team of Steve and Mary O'Rourke sell caskets starting at $1,100 through their Minneapolis business, Dust to Dust Pine Caskets.
Finding sustained success may be a challenge for handmade wooden casket makers, said Steve Willwerscheid of Willwerscheid Funeral Homes and Cremation Service.
"There will always be a niche in society where something like that will work," he said, "But will a one-man shop be successful long-term? They haven't in the past."
Others believe that, along with the growing trend of green burials, the handmade wooden coffin movement is here to stay. Geo Brening, manager of Oak Hill Cemetery in Richfield, says wooden casket makers not only will be successful, but they'll drive down the costs of high-dollar caskets.
"Things are just getting outrageously priced," he said. "People in this business are trying anything to save a buck."
Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715