The Coffin Maker of Vashon Island
It’s what’s above ground that matters most to Marcus Daly.
Though the coffins he makes at his Vashon Island workshop will be buried or entombed forever, along with their mortal contents, it’s the people he meets who inspire him.
Daly turns out one or two wooded caskets a week at the sawdust-covered shop next to his home.
When Daly turns off his belt sander, the yells of his seven children and the bleating of goats can be heard across his forested five acres.
Daly, 48, grew up outside Philadelphia and came to Seattle as a young man.
He fished and refurbished buildings.
When he and his wife, Kelly, were expecting their second child in 2001, the couple moved to Vashon Island to make wooden boats.
“It seemed romantic,” Daly said. “It seemed like an idyllic lifestyle.”
But finding people who would pay $10,000 for a 12-foot boat became challenging.
So instead he turned to landscaping and carpentry.
In 2003, while expecting another child, Kelly had a miscarriage.
Grieving, the couple wanted to honor their child in some way.
“I just decided, I’ll build a little casket myself,” Daly said.
It was the first he had ever made.
“We found a lot of healing in doing that,” he said.
Two years later, when Pope John Paul II died, Daly was struck by the simplicity of the pontiff’s wooden casket.
“He had a really simple wooden coffin amidst the incredible art and architecture of St. Peter’s Square,” Daly said.
For Daly, a devout Catholic, the pope’s coffin personified the Bible verse on leaving the world as naked as we come, devoid of possessions.
“The exit is the same for all of us,” Daly said. “The only thing we take with us is what we’ve given away. It’s what we give, not what we have that matters.”
The pope’s funeral got him to thinking: Why are funerals so elaborate, so expensive? And does that separate us from the sometimes painful but always inevitable passage of life?
SIMPLE PINE BOX
American’s green movement has spread to the great beyond. What one might call a final trip to the recycling center.
A green hereafter can mean biodegradable caskets, an unadorned plot or cremation.
“Sometimes I think people choose cremation because they can’t imagine their body lying in one of those things,” Daly said of ornate, bedazzled caskets.
Traditional caskets and burials use metal, in the form of coffins, and concrete in the form of underground burial vaults.
“Burying metal doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Daly said. “It’s not a renewable resource.”
Daly’s caskets start with planks of pine from Idaho or oak from the Midwest. From there he cuts, glues and joins the wood to form a four-sided coffin.
The oak is heavier and takes two people to lift — empty.
Most of the coffins are inscribed with a religious devotion and an inlay of the Marian cross. His business is named Marian Caskets.
Sometimes a customer will call Daly saying Granddad had always wanted to be buried in a simple pine box, but when that family member goes to a funeral home they find none.
“That’s strange, because there are pine trees growing all over the country and hundreds of thousands of carpenters,” Daly said.
It takes Daly about 20 hours to make a coffin, start to finish.
Daly used to make six-sided versions but now makes just four-sided.
He finishes them with a natural, whey-based product.
The only metal he uses are screws for the handle rails.
Initially Daly used rope handles — and still does occasionally — for folks who want no metal in the casket.
Kelly Daly installs a simple cotton muslin lining in each coffin. A straw-filled pillow is included.
“Death is the biggest mystery,” Daly said. “It doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn. It just means it’s inexhaustible.”
As he glues and sands, Daly has time to ponder the questions that some don’t want to face.
“Can all of my life, all that I am, all the relationships that I’ve had, all the love that I’ve given, all the things I’ve struggled with … can they all fit into that box?” he asks.
“Not quite. There’s going to be something that’s not going into that box,” he concludes.
His Catholic faith prompts him to ponder the relationship between body and soul.
“I can’t see how I would be doing this if I wasn’t Catholic,” Daly said.
Many of Daly’s customers are Catholic, some are Christians of other faiths, and others are not religious at all.
While most of his customers buy caskets for their loved ones, many buy them for themselves.
Some are elderly, some are sick. Many have visited Daly’s workshop to see his work.
Daly is moved by the strength and grace he sees in the dying.
When they visit his homestead they often meet and talk with his children.
“They have gotten to meet quite a few people (who have) courage and joy in the face of what most of us don’t even want to talk about,” Daly said. “That’s been a real blessing for my family.”
Sometimes the kids will help out in the shop.
“They seem like they see this as a pretty normal part of the rhythm of life,” he said.
Father Phillip Bloom, pastor of St. Mary of the Valley Catholic Church in Monroe, is an admirer of Daly’s work — so much so that he purchased a casket several years ago.
“I just love the casket and the way that it looks and the message that is on it,” Bloom said.
The coffin sits just a few feet away from Bloom as he prays every morning in his personal chapel.
“It’s a good reminder,” Bloom said. “All of us are going to face the same end, and to be prepared.”
ONE FAMILY’S NEED
Ask Doug Strauss how many children he has and he’ll say nine.
“Two in heaven, seven living.”
The Federal Way father lost his 11-year-old daughter Gloria to cancer in 2007. In the throes of grief the couple followed the traditional route of visiting a funeral home.
“That was probably one of the lower experiences of the process with our daughter,” Strauss said. “Just picking out that stuff at the funeral home. There was no feeling.”
After their daughter’s death, he and his wife Kristen started Gloria’s Angels, a nonprofit foundation to help reduce burdens on people caring for a family member with a life-threatening condition.
Strauss got to know Daly after the coffin maker donated a casket to another family associated with the group.
Then in 2011, tragedy struck the Strauss family again. Their 9-year-old son, Anthony, died following an accident.
This time the couple turned to Daly and his handmade caskets.
Daly delivered the casket to the Strauss family. Each family member helped paint the coffin and adorn it with a hand print and personal message.
“Death is difficult, but it’s a part of life,” Strauss recalled. “It allowed our kids to process it in a healthy way.”
The family said their final goodbyes to Anthony at his funeral as he was carried down the aisle in Daly’s casket.
“It wasn’t just a mechanism he was buried in. It was something he was laid to rest in,” Strauss said.
SELLING AND SHIPPING
One of Daly’s unadorned pine coffin costs $1,630 while an oak version is $2,050. Caskets with the carvings and inlays are $300 more.
“The pine really does speak to a lot of people,” Daly said.
Daly keeps 12 coffins in stock at any time. When an order is made it’s up to him to make the delivery, if local, or drive it to the airport for shipping.
When it arrives at an airport, a local delivery service will pick up the coffin and take it to a funeral home.
“I’ve never had a coffin not get to where it’s supposed to be in time and never had one damaged,” he said.
But, he’s come close.
A few months ago, he couldn’t find a plane big enough to get a coffin to Great Falls, Montana. So, he drove it there.
“I told Kelly, ‘I got to go to Great Falls. I’ll see you in a few days.’ ”
He can customize a coffin within just a few hours.
A former Korean War pilot, dying of cancer, asked Daly to inscribe, “Thank you God for all the amazing adventures you have given me on and above planet earth” on his coffin.
His business relies on word of mouth and the occasional media coverage.
For Doug Strauss, the care Daly puts into his work eases the grief of those left to mourn.
“He makes the end of life process spiritual and as beautiful as it can be,” Strauss said. “It’s like you have someone on your side.”
Info: 206-463-6245, mariancaskets.com.