Coffin Maker's Wife Plans her Funeral Part 3- Giving it your all.

I have to admit, I never considered donating my body.  Organs, yes, but the whole thing, never.  I hated the idea of being slowly ripped apart in a noxious smelling anatomy lab, especially after I "heard" that even pre-med students have access to whole bodies.  I was pre-med once and had no business dissecting humans, but then again, I also believed much of what I "heard".  Thanks to Mary Roach, my least favorite after death activity has moved to the top of the list.

Mary wrote the book Stiff.  With a useful blend of humor and sarcasm, she is able to describe all the ways your body can be used without scaring you stiff.  For the sake of the living, your body parts may be divvied up for various surgery workshops, decayed for forensic data, slammed by mechanisms simulating car crashes, shot at to test body armor, or plasticized for teaching purposes.  Sounds exciting!  Your body can do good even when dead.

So, I looked into how I would donate my body within the state of Michigan.  At first glance, my bubble was popped.  My options look pretty run of the mill body dissection to me.  For some reason I'm fixated on going beyond the norm in terms of body donation while being fully aware that I have absolutely no choice in the matter.  Once a body is donated, the accepting facility has complete control over its use.   Plus I have to pay a funeral director anywhere from $550-$1950 to get my body to the right place in a timely manner.  Could be a costly donation.  (If you die in Southeast Michigan or Lansing, however, there may not be a fee.)  Oh, and you better be prepared to have alternative funeral arrangements.  Your body would be declined if you've had recent major surgery, amputations, burns, or contagious diseases, or are either obese or emaciated.  I have a missing thyroid, does that count?  No, says one university I called.  If you donate body parts other than cornea, though, you're out.  Wow.  If I decide to go this route, I'll have to leave behind a flow chart:  "Healthy body, proceed to donation clinic. Organs no good, drive to Detroit..."

After shopping around a bit, Wayne State advertises the most interesting prospects: "95% of the bodies are used for medical and/or dental teaching. 5% are used for research. At the present time, continual research is in operation on, but not limited to—Muscular Dystrophy, Huntington’s Chorea, Multiple Congenital Anomalies, Various Eye Diseases, Orthopedic, Dental, and Bioengineering studies, including safety testing."   I like that they're willing to put forth some detail about what they may do with your body.  Information is kept pretty basic in this process. Take the application, for example.  To donate your body, you'd be asked to provide information like your name, sex, birth date, and occupation.  I go through much more paperwork getting my teeth cleaned, but then again, I'm still alive.

And what about after your body has been thoroughly picked apart?  All facilities in Michigan will cremate and bury your remains in a university burial plot, unless you ask for the remains to be returned or you decide to permanently donate your body to U of M.  I suspect that's what the person in the picture decided to do.

Current Body Donation Programs in Michigan:
Michigan State University Willed Body Program
University of Michigan Anatomical Donations Program
Wayne State University Body Bequest Program
(Body Donation Programs in the United States- Whole country directory)


The Coffin Maker's Wife Plans Her Own Funeral- Be still my beating heart.

As my bookshelf fills up with titles such as Death to Dust, Cremation in America, even a CD titled Funeral Music, I soberly realize that I am unable to speak for myself long before the funeral.  Decisions are often required as soon as death is declared.  I vaguely recall signing up for organ donation as a fresh driver of 16, but I'm sure that the decision was profound for a teenager given control of a potentially deadly machine.  I thank my Dad for that awareness, who reminded me from the passenger seat to give "wide berth" to the kids waiting for the bus on the side of the road.  Every morning, wide berth.  My decision to donate, though, has faded enough to make me check my license.  Have I continued to renew my decision to donate?  Yup.  Little donor heart on the bottom right.

The concept of dying with still viable organs and passing them on the the living does seem bittersweetly romantic.  The reality, as always, is much more intense.  In order to donate your organs, you must be on a ventilator and have a severe neurological deficit and the body is put on life support until surgeons and recipients can be arranged.  According to the Gift of Life Michigan website, it means that in 2013, there were just 284 organ donors resulting in 915 organ transplants.  By March 1st 2014, there is a total of 3,313 organs needed.  Huge deficit.  Cornea, skin, and bones are less complex transplants, so their numbers are more impressive.  Although it may be hard on my family to deal with a "living" body being carted away for its organs, I'm hoping it leaves them with a feeling of honor.  Imagine the gifts those 284 donors made, and I say gifts plural because they most likely saved many lives.
(By the way, Michigan Secretary of State makes it ridiculously easy to add your name to the Organ Donor Registry, if you haven't already and wish to join.)

Giving a nod to one pre-death issue, you may want to listen to this Radio Lab podcast (The Bitter End) concerning advance directives...but that's getting off topic.  Podcast summary from Radio Lab:  "We turn to doctors to save our lives -- to heal us, repair us, and keep us healthy. But when it comes to the critical question of what to do when death is at hand, there seems to be a gap between what we want doctors to do for us, and what doctors want done for themselves."


The Coffin Maker's Wife Plans Her Own Funeral - Part 1: The gall.

That's it.

I read Bob Butz's Going out Green some years ago (see the old post for my interview with Bob).  What I remember after all the years between, years during which some member of our family regularly struck up socially unacceptable death conversations with complete strangers, is Mr. Butz's recommendation to plan your own funeral.  This was the basis of his book.  He is not a funeral expert, just a regular Joe in terms of death.  So, shouldn't I, an instigator of such undesirable conversations, practice what I preach?  Shouldn't I, the coffin maker's wife, plan my own funeral?

I don't see this as a morose project, or even a tempter of fate.  Although there is potential for tears, I'm hoping a death plan can be as freeing as attending a funeral to celebrate life.  Right now at least, I think that I'm planning this funeral to get the most out of life.

Merilynne Rush, a knowledgeable consultant on after death issues, is involved with southern Michigan Death Cafe gatherings.  Death what?  Yes, Death Cafe; at which people, often strangers, gather to drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death.  Not grief support, but "to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives," the organization's objective. In 2011, Jon Underwood and Sue Barsky Reid offered the first Death Cafe, which swiftly spread across the world.  After liking Death Cafe on facebook, I found an article whose title summed this whole process up for me:  "Death needs a plan similar to childbirth."  At least I know I'm not alone in this mental realm of curious, contented death contemplation.

Here's to happy death planning.
(Chid induced and captured expression of doubt.)


Our family business, Nelnamar...

Welcome to Nelnamar, a family owned woodworking business specializing in coffins.

What does Nelnamar mean?
We named Nelnamar after the ladies of the house; Nel(l), Na(ncy), and Mar(y).  Matt, the woodworker, is the sole male in our household.  He plies his craft in a home workshop, while Mary runs the computer end of things and the children create a backdrop of perpetual learning.

Why do we make coffins?

It all started with a conversation with a friend, as most things do.  This friend was working as a hospice nurse and made a comment to Matt, “I tell every woodworker I know that there is a need for affordable wooden coffins.”  Apparently, there were people interested in this type of coffin but no ready avenue for them to obtain one.
 This conversation took place during a time when Matt spent his days making spiral staircases, built in furniture, and similar projects for a custom woodworking business.  The seed, however, was planted.  When it was time to move on, in 2009, we took the plunge into self-employment and began the business journey building coffins.  Little did we know that we were also about to begin the process of learning about death and all the details that emerge after this sacred event.

Who is the Hohlbein family?
Matt hails from Shepherd, Michigan and Mary from Petoskey.  We met in Grand Rapids while woodworking and teaching, but moved to northern Michigan to get away from all the traffic lights.  Finally settling on 10 acres in Bliss, we got right to work building a house and attempting to garden,  joyously adding children to the mix…and then chickens…and then goats! Mary got a job as the local librarian, as Matt got to work designing, constructing, and honing his ideas into reality.  Although we're happy to be away from the traffic lights, we often reminisce about all the wonderful people and ideas we left behind in the city.

We couldn't have picked a better community, though.  Bliss is a place that embraces the idea of generational farms and Saturday night square dances.  You can still buy hay and grain right down the road and buy hardware from families whom the roads were named after.  Working at the local library, Mary has enjoyed listening to first hand accounts of walking to the one room schoolhouse with a potato in-pocket, which was turned into lunch after baking all morning on the schoolhouse woodstove.  Living around such thoughtful, kind people makes it hard to choose work for an extra hour over a neighborly get together, no matter the season or location.

Our community is one big reason why we're so adamant about buying local.  Very simply, buying from my neighbor helps that neighbor to keep living and working here.  We're weary of buying things that are programmed to self destruct within six months.  Granted, there aren't a great number of things to buy here, but we're hoping that exchanging skills catches on enough to see more goods for sale in the future.  To further avoid the long drive to town and its associate fuel usage, we try to grow as much of our food as possible.  Not an easy task and one we enjoy learning our way through, season by season.   Now that we've added the missing link to the growing process, goat and chicken manure, we're enjoying the flavors of an even more 'local' community indeed.

And the children who so focus our attention on the lovely details of life?  How do they round out the family  Other than making thoughtful piles of junk in the yard and riding the male goat, they have the profound ability to start discussions on how to treat others, when (and when not) to sweat the small stuff, and what math is really good for.  The girls also do a fine job making the braids for the Michigan Coffin lid buttons.  These children are why we're working from home, and why we're building what we build.

So this business is very much part of our way of life.  It means that we don't have a fancy storefront, let alone a landscaped driveway, but we have goats who like visitors in that driveway.  It means we don't have cell phones, but we regularly use the internet to connect us with lovely people who are our business partners and our customers.  It means we rely on face-to-face conversations and much appreciated word-of-mouth to reach out to both potential customers and local businesses just as much as we rely on these conversations to figure out when to schedule the next square dance.  And why we look first to our neighbors for the yarn and wood we use in our coffins.  These features keep us who we are and being part of the the whole process helps keep us humble.  Perhaps you'd enjoy doing business with us.


 Harbor Creator's Collective

Nelnamar in Harbor Springs on Saturday, August 24th for the HACC's Creators Fair

From 1-5 pm, we'll join fellow creators and other interested folks in an interactive setting.  At our "pod", Matt will share the shoemaking skills he's been developing...


...sewing skin-on-frame kayaks...

...and we'll have coffin and home funeral resources on hand.
Plenty of topics to stimulate your creativity.


Skin on Frame Kayaks

Yes, wood is Matt's thing.  But he's always been tempted to create with fabric.  Less dust.  Oh, and did I say he was a boat guy, too?  Way back, he found a book called Baidarka, by George Dyson.  This book became the source of a long fascination with skin on frame boats.   And back when I gave more creative gifts, I sent a copy of this book to Mr. Dyson to sign and send back.
This summer, he's built not one, but two for our children and one for himself.  
All the way from lashing the frames together...

Bending the ribs...

Sewing the fabric on...

and covering with finish...


Natural Death Care Workshop Coming to Petoskey

De-Mystifying Natural Death Care:
Home Funeral and Green Burial
Join our workshop, offering in-depth discussion
and practical strategies regarding options
for natural death care and home funeral planning
for yourself and your loved ones.

With Merilynne Rush, Midwife, Home Funeral Guide
Saturday, April 28, 10 am – 4 pm

Cost: $30/ person, pre-registration is required.
Sponsored in part by Nelnamar Coffins,
a Northern Michigan Company.

Workshop Topics include:
Discussion of our views about death and our final wishes,
The benefits of home funeral, what is involved and how to do it,
Specifics of how to care for the body,
Creating sacred space and/or ceremony,
Working with family and community to honor
the wishes of the deceased and
an overview of green burial options in Michigan.

Merilynne will have handouts for all participants
and some resources for sale.

2225 Summit Park Drive, Petoskey, MI
(NW corner entrance and conference room of the Northwest Michigan Works building.)

Bring a lunch or we can order for delivery.
For more information / registration,
contact Angie at 231-409-2272, 231-537-4818