Pine coffin maker believes in a more grounded kind of burial

Mom-and-pop coffin makers say they offer an alternative to expensive funeral industry

Don Byrne is only 45, but he's already planned his burial. He wants to be lowered into a shovel-dug grave in one of his own handmade pine coffins.

Byrne lives off the grid on a North Carolina homestead with no electricity or running water. Pounding away with antique hand tools, he builds pine coffins for families who want to return to the days when burials were cheap and simple: a shovel and a plain pine box.

He intends to die the way he lives too — as close to nature as possible. Byrne builds his coffins from raw pine in an outdoor workshop a few steps from a rustic cabin where he lives with his wife and their two small children.

A stiff winter wind was bending raindrops sideways as Byrne worked on a new coffin one chilly day. A man from nearby Raleigh had just died. His widow ordered a custom pine coffin for the funeral, which was just three days away.

Byrne used a wooden mallet to pound together pine boards to form the body board, or the coffin bottom. With an old hand plane, he smoothed the rough edges of the tongue-and-groove design as the boards fit snugly into place.

This coffin was a bit longer than most — 76 inches, to accommodate the dead man's height. Because the widow planned a viewing, Byrne built only half a wooden lid instead of the usual full-length pine top.

As he planed down the boards, Byrne saved the shavings. The widow wanted her husband to rest on them inside the coffin. Byrne also planned to save the final few nails so the man's family could hammer them home as a way to say goodbye.

"We want to go back to when people handled their own funerals instead of having the funeral industry do it," Byrne said as he spun a hand drill to make dowel holes in another coffin. "The grieving process is enhanced by that personal touch and a more natural end, dust to dust."

Byrne's wife, Nicole, 39, handles marketing for the couple's mom-and-pop Piedmont Pine Coffins, which promises to "help families reclaim the power of caring for our own dead."

Like her husband, Nicole Byrne plans to be buried on their 32-acre homestead on a handmade "trundle coffin," a pine board with heavy ropes attached for lowering a body into a grave. She wants her body shrouded in African cloth.

The couple say they offer an alternative to spending thousands of dollars on elaborate factory-made coffins. Their coffins sell for about $875 for a simple pier-and-panel coffin and about $1,000 for one with dovetail corners.

The couple started the business in summer 2013 to spread their vision of living — and dying — simply and in tune with nature. They promote so-called green burials, and a greater involvement for families in the process.

Some families ask to pound in the last few wooden pegs or nails. Some write messages or draw pictures on the coffins. Others cover them with wreaths, flowers or personal mementos. Children sometimes dip their hands in paint and leave handprints.

Recently, Byrne drove a coffin to South Carolina to deliver it to a man who didn't want his family to have to deal with ordering one when he dies. "It's in his living room, ready to go," Byrne said.

Byrne builds most coffins a standard size, just under 30 inches wide to accommodate the concrete burial vaults many cemeteries require. The vaults prevent the ground from sinking on top of the coffin.

Nicole Byrne drums up sales by visiting funeral homes with a model pine coffin in the back of a pickup, but the business is not lucrative, at least not yet. For now, Don Byrne is holding on to his day job, teaching English as a second language in a nearby public school.

The Byrnes live in two simple 12-by-12 cabins. They rely on wood stoves for heat, lanterns for light, a well for water, and an outhouse and indoor sawdust toilet for sanitation. They grow vegetables and herbs while raising chickens, ducks, sheep and a milk cow named Buttercup.

The other day, a lamb died in a pasture of bloat, Byrne said. The carcass was still warm when he butchered the animal. That evening, as he built a coffin on his workbench, the aroma of lamb chops with Dijon mustard and olive oil wafted from a tiny cabin kitchen where Nicole was preparing dinner.

Don Byrne grew up in Pennsylvania, the middle-class son of a professor. He earned a classical studies degree at Duke University, studied in Greece and taught Greek and Latin.

Wanting to simplify his life, he moved onto the homestead seven years ago, named it Melleray and added the cabins and workshop. He took a one-week woodworking course and a hand-tool course. Then he taught himself to make coffins, something simple and old-fashioned that he could turn into a home-based business.

At his workbench, the coffin ordered by the widow was nearly finished. The next day, Byrne drove the coffin to a funeral home, then attended the service a day later.

He watched survivors, many of them children, draw hearts, stars and flowers on the plain coffin. They wrote messages too: "I love you," "I will miss you" and "You shall always be in my thoughts."

The next day, Byrne was back at his workshop, building another coffin from slabs of fresh pine.

"The last one in stock," he said, "will be for me."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidZucchino

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