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.


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 


Christmas with a Woodworker

Fine woodworking meets music.  It was a mystery to me at first, too, but Matt managed to get my hint but took music stand to the next level.  Fully collapsible, the sun shaped piece slides out from a rail and folds up according style into one transportable piece.  Watch out, Bliss Township Square Dance! 

And as you can see in the background, Northern Michigan didn't see much snow for Christmas.  At least once a week, leading up to Christmas, I would step out the door and get a whiff of spring.  We've been spoiled by balmy chore weather, sweet carrots from the hoophouse, and unhindered mail delivery. Or so I thought.   Finally under a few inches of snow, the beauty of winter has finally shown her face.  But in her own sweet time.


More Coffin Music...

Another music post?  Ah, yes.  Most likely, you're not going to stop by to look at a casket any day soon, and therefore get to know us personally.  And I, Mary, have been mystified and impressed by music from day one.  I'm not a great musician, but I'm so awed by...well...how good it makes you feel.  Anyway, my blog post on the Blissfest/Caravan of Thieves interview, led to Curtis Eller, who penned "Sugar in my Coffin".
This nice gentleman musician humored me with answers to my questions..."I've got answers in my coffin..."

We were first introduced to you through "Sugar in My Coffin", which was covered by the Michigan band, Red Sea Pedestrians.  On the surface, the song seems like a call for a sweet ending after the frustrations in life.  I was never great at English, is there more ideas going on there?  (Lyrics here...scroll down)
For somebody who's not great at English, you've managed to very succinctly state the main theme of the lyric. There is also a rather sideways political slant to it as well . I wrote "Sugar In My Coffin" shortly after playing a show in New York City with Pete Seeger and I decided that I needed to write a protest song of my own. Predictably, when I finished I realized I'd just written another song about Elvis Presley and Abraham Lincoln. I guess some habits die hard. No pun intended.

You mention that you've played at funerals on your webpage.  Is that true?
Several years ago while I was still living in New York City I was asked to perform at the funeral of a 23 year old kid who'd died in a freak mountain climbing accident. He was an aspiring banjo player and they wanted me to lead the congregation in a joyful rendition of "Keep On The Sunny Side Of Life". His father told me that he wanted the service to be a celebration of a vibrant, adventurous life, and it really did feel that way. I met his friends and family and learned a lot about him (including the odd coincidence that we shared the same birthday). I wish I'd known him while he was sill with us. I have to say, it was one of the most moving moments in my musical life. Unforgettable.

In our business, we try to keep things local...but you tour all over the place.  Do you bring any "green" practices into your music career?
Sadly, the life of a traveling musician isn't naturally very "green", but I do what I can. I didn't have a drivers license in New York so I've toured exclusively by public transit for the past 10 years. I usually take a train or bus. Maybe that's why I tour the UK and Europe so frequently. I also perform totally unamplified quite frequently, although to be honest it's more of an artistic choice than an environmental stand. I sometimes find electricity to be a barrier to open communication with the audience.

Have you ever met the Caravan of Thieves?  They have band photos on their site in which they're posed in a cemetery.  
I played a show with them in New York and they sounded great. I've always found cemeteries to be very attractive locations. People frequently take me to cemeteries in the cities where I perform. I guess there's something about my songs that make people want to introduce me to the deceased
populous of their towns. I've been taken to the graves of Stephen Foster, Harry Houdini and dozens of others. A New York film maker is currently working on a short film based on the song "Sugar In My Coffin", and we'll be filming performances in cemeteries in New York, North Carolina and New Orleans.

Simple question...complex answer.  Why do you play music?
My dad was a bluegrass banjo player and rockabilly guitarist, and he taught me how to play. He also ran a small, local circus in Detroit when I was a kid, so I developed an early appreciation for the charms of physical performance. I don't know if that's exactly why I play music, but that's the way I learned how.

Talking about coffins all the time helps us remember to appreciate life.  How does playing music and touring heighten awareness in your life?
I have a lot of songs about dead people, but I perform them almost exclusively for living people. It'd be a bummer if it was the other way around. I realize that doesn't really answer the question.

Thanks!  When are you coming to Michigan next?
I was last in Michigan in June so it may be a while before I return. I always love performing in Michigan. I find the audiences to be curious and easily engaged. I grew up near Detroit so perhaps I just feel at ease with a Michigan crowd. 


Nelnamar at Great Lakes Folk Festival, August 13 and 14

Nelnamar has been asked to partner up with Merilynn Rush from After Death Home Care, and Callan Loo from Peaceful Crossings, to represent more options in times of death at the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing.  There will be a workshop at noon, at which Home Funerals and Green Burials will be discussed, and we'll share a booth in the Green Arts section of the festival.

This has been my first exposure to "Reskilling" workshops, which has made an appearance due to the Transition Initiative.  Apparently the whole Transition concept is rooted in permaculture, but has grown from its Irish roots into a worldwide movement.  Towns commit towards local, sustainable, fossil fuel independent lives...on a neighborly level.  Have you ever driven your car behind a huge trash truck, destined for the landfill?  I have recently, and finally realized that our fossil fuels are completely intertwined in our daily lives.  Buying food local partially to avoid shipping food cross country is one thing, but trash...things we don't even want...that's another ball game.  The problem is, there's not many folks out there who have the skills that would allow them to break away from the fuel centered system ...hence the reskilling workshops!

I asked Lynne Swanson, curator for Folklife Programs, a few questions about the Reskilling concept put into action in Michigan:

I like the title of your Programs and Activities...Everything Old is Green Again.  Was it difficult to find folks with an old skill to teach?
No it wasn’t difficult to find individuals with traditional skills to pass on in our Re-Skilling Workshops.  MSU Museum’s Michigan Traditional Arts Program has worked for 35 years with traditional artists and practitioners.  We looked into our files  - and also borrowed some teachers from the Ann Arbor ReSkilling Festival.

Did festival organizers get the Reskilling Workshop idea from the Transition Initiative?
Yes, we attended the Ann Arbor ReSkilling festival and found that the programming lineup was very similar to what we were trying to achieve – so it was a happy coincidence.


Time Out

We've been pretty busy in our personal lives lately.

Perhaps you've seen our ad in the Blissfest program.

This was, by far, our busiest festival yet.  The dual life of working pre, during, and post fest while running home to maintaining a small farm and small children is a job I couldn't have done when I was 20.  And there are perks, like the lifetime supply of tent stakes...

Oh, and the music.. Caravan of Thieves topped the list.  (If your 4 years old, you pronounce it Caravan of Sleeves.)  Looking at their website you'd think their music is dark, but it's so happy and energetic that it's a sin not to dance.  Here's a video link.   And why, do you ask, is a band review on a casket website....lucky coincidence that one of their songs is titled "Raise the Dead."  Music allows for no holding back of emotions, including songs on death. Our favorites now include "Raise the Dead", and the Red Sea Pedestrians "Sugar in my Coffin" (Curtis Eller).

Fuzz and Carrie, the founding couple of Caravan of Thieves, were kind enough to answer a few of my questions:

  • Because you wrote the song "Raise the Dead", would you ever consider prepurchasing a casket from us?  We'd consider purchasing a casket. We're more of a "burial at sea" kind of folk though.

  • In my (Mary's) modest opinion, "Raise the Dead" almost has a lullaby feel.  Did you intend this?  We did intend for the lullaby effect. A lot of what we do are lullabys, some are just sped up. But its a happy song celebrating the achievements and the overall population we call "the deceased", whom we adore. 

  • I noticed a band picture on your website, posing in a cemetery.  You must like cemeteries?   And as for cemeterys, can't say enough good things... Fascinating. Beautiful. Inspiring. Timeless.
Their next apperance in Michigan happens on August 5th at Bell's Brewery.