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.


An Interview with Bob Butz, author of Going out Green

Most people believe  that they don't like talking about death.  Regardless of this, you'd be surprised at how many lengthy, meaningful, and constructive conversations we've had with perfect strangers who had just discovered that our family builds caskets.  Sometimes it's questions revolving around the concept of "can you do that"?  Most of the time the stranger launches into a story about a particularly unique funeral experience.  So our society is afraid of talking about death?   Maybe we're afraid of our own death, but we certainly don't hold back all of our feelings on death.  The burial is easier...until it's time to actually plan it.

A few years back, Bob Butz, author from the Traverse City Area, was approached by his publisher to essentially plan his own burial and write a book about it.  His book is a very open, human (including humor, disgust, and fear) journey into the feared task of taking care of one's body after death.  Most of us have the luxury of leaving the final details of our burial for the living.  Bob went through it all, including his final task of physically digging a grave in his own back yard.   Of course, you should have the funeral that you want.  But if you wish to discover what this means, you have to learn about the options.

I wanted to e-interview Bob and highlight his book because his burial journey is the perfect primer for those who want to consider the options, without stifling seriousness.  Here is a link to the book trailer for Going out Green.  Here are the questions:

Have you been updating your own funeral plans yearly, as you've recommended in your book? 

My big problem has always been in deciding where I’d like to be buried.  Where do my bones belong…if anywhere?  And does it really matter?  Logistically, not much has changed since finishing Going Out Green.  Michigan funeral law is still the same.  The friends needed to carry out my plan are all still on this earth.  But it’s the where—and that’s really a major thing—that I have yet to decide on.   

Based on your research, does Michigan have more or less flexibility than other states when it comes to planning a funeral?

Green burial advocates have long been in agreement that Michigan has the least flexible funeral laws in the nation.  The Funeral Consumers Information Society is spearheading an effort to change that and they deserve the support of anyone who believes people should have the right to care for their own dead. 
Are you aware of the Traverse City area green cemetery plans/development?

With green burial featured more in the news, a lot of people think that opening a green burial preserve could be a wonderful money maker.   I’ve talked to people who believe this and others who come at it with more noble intentions, those who would like to protect land while also offering a “green alternative” to people shopping around for their final resting place.  In this area, I’ve heard of more than a few people who were interested in starting a green cemetery.  But, as far as I know, no one has actually “broken ground” yet.    But that’s not surprising given the hard reality of the paper work, the surveying fees, real estate costs—running and maintaining a green burial preserve is actually very expensive. 
You approached your funeral research with a refreshing lightheartedness.  Did you receive any bad press because of this?

Not at all.  I wrote Going Out Green with the goal of crafting a narrative that was entertaining and informative.  My goal was to craft a story, in the form of a weekly serial, that would be accessible and interesting to anyone—even if you didn’t specifically pick up the book because of an interest in green burial.  And I think the book succeeds.           
How many funeral directors did you talk to during research for your book before you found one willing to help you plan the funeral of your choice?

More than I can remember and I haven’t found one yet.  There are plenty of funeral directors out there who will help someone carry out a green burial in Michigan.  I just haven’t found a funeral director yet who I would call a friend and, frankly, I would prefer to not have a stranger enter the picture at this final phase.  I want someone there who knew me and my family—someone I have a connection to, no matter how small—or I would prefer to have no one at all. 

Thank you, Bob.


After Death Home Care

Just as midwives exist to help with birth at home, midwives also exist to help with caring for the dead at home.  Merilynne Rush is a skilled midwife in both rhelms.  As a Home Funeral Guide, she educates those interested in caring for their own dead loved ones.  
credit for painting goes to Collin McRae
In her own words:  "I want to help people care for their own loved one during this time if that is right for them and what they desire. Just as I believe that birth can take place in the home and be an intimate family experience, I believe that home visitation or home funeral can be the best way for individuals or families to engage in the process of caring for and saying good-bye to their loved one."

On the "More Info" page of Merilynne's site, she addresses frequent questions concerning caring for a body of a loved one, including legal questions.  Matt and I are hoping to bring Merilynne up for a workshop some day and thus raise awareness in Northern Michigan that you can have a home funeral.  I was honored to speak via phone with Merilynne recently and wish to share a few of the questions I asked her:

How do you begin the overwhelming task of caring for the dead?
It is very important to educate yourself and plan ahead.  If you don't know your options and have family support, it is very difficult to have a home funeral.
How have you prepared yourself for this service?
I have taken a training with a very experienced Home Funeral Guide and networked with other "death midwives" all over the country.  I have also learned most of what I know from the families I have had the privilege to attend.
What is the greatest lesson you've learned in caring for the dead?
We are all individual and no one type of funeral is suitable for everyone.  When families are given permission and support, they have amazing strength to discover how to do it themselves in a way that is very meaningful and healing for them. 
Do I have to belong to a specific religion to have my beliefs honored in death?
Absolutely not.  The beauty of being at home is that you are surrounded by your own support system and can do what is important for you and your family at this very special time.
What is the simplest way I can make a funeral "green"?
Do not embalm (requires home funeral if visitation is desired).  Do not cremate (uses incredible amount of fossil fuel).  Find a cemetery that will allow burial without cement vault, or certify your own family cemetery.
How do I know if my desires are legal?
Do the research.  There's so many misconceptions about this.  A conventional funeral director won't know all the answers.
What can I do to help my family plan to care for my body after death?
Tell them what you want, have a family meeting, be informed, plan ahead.  This is what I help families do.  It's really quire simple, and inexpensive, and I believe, healthy for us all.  But it requires an openness to old/new ways.


A Sneak Peek at the Glueless, Nailless, Screwless Casket

Here's version one, yet to be fine-tuned into version two soon.  I want to call it "green" but I cringe at labels.  This casket more mature than a buzz word.  So mature that it may be closer to the caskets of years past.  

Technically speaking, the casket was constructed with sliding dovetails and wooden pegs...

...the bottom profile functions as a handle... 

...the lid buttons down...

...but is built to be propped up...

...and was tested with more than 500 pounds hanging continuously for three days, with periods of another 160 pounds put into it, bring the total testing load to nearly 700 pounds.  Allthewhile being shaken, pushed, pulled, swung by various members of our quality control team (see past post).


Can it be...spring?

Ahh, the ramps.  The first great bounty is just waiting in the woods to bring pizazz to food after a long winter.  All the kids at our house, including the goat versions, fearlessly dug their nails/hoofs into the forest floor in search of food on our first forage attempt Easter Eve.  Initially, it's quite the challenge to dig up leeks without popping the tops off (plant self-protection?) and essentially losing the bulk of the harvest.  But after settling in, the buckets started filling up.  We're hoping to really go for it this year and take advantage of a crop that is ready and waiting when we would otherwise be engrossed by the seed starting battle.  Makes sense, right?

And what to do with these slightly tangy onion??  Drying, freezing, and pickling to preserve.  But then what?  I've heard of Wild Leek Potato Soup.  Sounds like a good start.  This year.

Also happy to report that one blog I follow, The Improvised Life, has been on the ramp bandwagon.  Spring is infectious. 


The Lone Pea Plants

The lone pea plants...It's spring here at the tip of the lower peninsula...almost.  This morning we woke up to a pretty thick coating of ice on the trees.  Beautiful, but a little discouraging given the drop in temperature.  And safely tucked away into the hoophouse, the pea plants are thriving.  I've long since killed the earliest spinach seedlings.  They completely dissapeared.  Mother Nature will always be the master of plants.  I can only dream of it.  Go MSU Hoophouse, where they are harvesting their first crop of the season this week!  Impressive considering the looks of the outdoors:


While nature waits outdoors, Matt has been experimenting with the glueless, screwless, naillless casket...made with dovetails and pegs.  (Pictures to come soon!)  We're trying to put our money where our mouths are, and produce a casket that is biodegradable, regardless of its life after leaving our woodshop.   I've always believed in voting with our purchases...that's how we create the community that we want.  Now that we are on the business end, why not only offer what benefits our community?  We're in a whole different league than businesses producing in China; there are a completely different set of principles involved.  Our caskets are made with little girls giggling in the background, scents of homemade food sneaking into the woodshop, and neighbors stopping in to drop off raw materials or a simple chat.


Goat Babies, Research and Design

Instantly we were back in the land of newborn babies.The last days of February had us away from the shop and busy in the barn.  Two baby goats were born!  We named the kid above Rose, and the male started off named Stinky, which has since progressed to Apollo and Rocket.  He has more names now than days old.  (The plan if three kids were born was to name in respect to the Apollo 13 mission:  Jim/Lovell, Fred/Freddie, and Jack/Jackie.)  Aside from dreaming up names, we were busy keeping watch over cold bodies and imperfect nursing mothers.  But a few days later, we're enjoying jumping, bouncing baby goats!

In the shop, Matt has been experimenting with the glueless, screwless casket construction techniques.  Currently the base wood is pine, soon to add walnut.  The panels as well as the box itself will all be put together with sliding dovetails and wooden pegs.  The pegs in the pine casket are made of ash for strength.  And the strength is partially put to test by our R&D/Quality Control Department...5 year old with a baseball bat. The peg system is a no brainer goal for us; "green" by default.   We believe very strongly in the value of simple construction and materials, and have heard so many others with the same thoughts in regards to caskets.  Constant insurance that what we are doing make sense on so many levels.


February 2011

Somehow the goats can coexist with the  ice.  Notice the buck in the background.  What a trooper!

February is a hopeful time for us, and a time to emerge from the Persephone months.
According to Eliot Coleman in the Four Season Harvest, "...there is a period of about three months (six weeks before the winter solstice and six weeks after it) when the gardener's only work is harvesting the bounty...The Persephone months are when the cold frame crops reign supreme."  So, not only are we ordering seeds at this time of the year, but if all goes well in the hoophouse (during the growing season) we're actually eating fresh spinach and the likes through an icy February.  

Northern Michigan has so much to offer, in both summer and winter.  In the shop, Matt has been trying to solve the issue of fastening the top of caskets with a local solution.  Here's one try, using wool that was grown and spun 4 miles from our house.  Braided into loops and given a wooden button, this solution may find its way onto a final casket design some day.  Yet another way to make a living alongside neighbors.


January 2011

This is the time of the year to truly embrace winter.  We’ve dusted off the skis and carved trails into the fields, before and after the unusual rainstorms of December.  Biking remains in our blood, however, and this would be your view if you had been driving down the road from the Bliss Store a few days before Christmas.  Now we can say that we truly had a "green" Christmas.

To go alongside our two original casket models, Matt has been in the shop rethinking handles and lid fastening, while banking up on alternative construction techniques.  The ultimate goal for these caskets is for them to be completely locally made.  We're excited that we've found a source of wood within 5 miles of our workshop. Dovetails are emerging from the shop as a technique to avoid the use of glue in the future, and hand planing is emerging as the most handsome smoothing technique.  When things are hand made, they tend to really look that way!