When Judith Davis' mother-in-law died a year ago, the funeral director persuaded the family that an airtight metal casket would be most appropriate for her burial.
But Davis was unsettled by that experience. "I decided I didn't want that to happen to me. I have very strong feelings about wanting to return to the earth naturally," she said.
So Davis, now 40 and someone who doesn't expect to die for a long time, bought herself a pine coffin kit and became one of dozens of local residents to enter a fledgling movement aimed at providing alternatives to the contemporary American way of burial.
"I haven't put it (the coffin) together," said Davis, who lives in the District, "I want to do with friends. That's not something you just pick up the phone and ask them."
Several weeks ago, a 14-year-old Bethesda girl who died of cystic fibrosis, was cremated in a pine coffin painted by artist Margo Newhouse of Potomac.
The girl's mother wanted something that represented her daughter's "spirit toward living," Newhouse explained. She painted the coffin in turquoise with a rainbow of red, orange, yellow, purple, blue and green extending around the sides and a butterfly on the lid.
"So many people thought it was just right," Newhouse commented.
The St. Francis Burial Society, a local group promoting simple, inexpensive and biodegradable coffins and cremation ash boxes is behind all this. They produce coffin kits, pre-assembled rectangular and mummy-style coffins and cremation boxes, all of pine. They also sell sturdy cardboard coffins and instructions for making a coffin from scratch.
What's more, the society, urges living with coffins rather than just getting buried in them. Blanket or toy chests, coffee tables, desk and tool boxes are among the uses they recommend. Paint, varnish or handcarve them or convert the boxes into a combination planter-bookshelf-wine rack, the society recommends.
Accompanied by a coffin during lectures on death and dying, the Rev. Robert Herzog, a St. Francis founder, has watched people eying the unfinished box cautiously. "They're intimidated by it. Then they begin to move their hands across the wood . . . How many times have you had that experience of knowing what you'll be in when you die?" he asked.
The pine coffin concepts harkens back to medieval Europe and colonial America simple folk hewed tree trunks or hired carpenters to build their burial boxes.
Later, metallic caskets were developed. Frequently ornate, lined with silk and molded from bronze or copper, they range in price from under [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to several thousands of dollars - the lion's share of funeral expenses.
The society originated here four years ago after Jenny Moore, wife of former Washington Episcopal Bishop Pope. Moore, now of New York, explained the wish to be buried in a simple pine box. "She was offended by that most funeral homes offer" Herzog explained.
However, Herzog could not find what he wanted. Instead, he discovered a local English cabinet maker willing to build one.
The St. Francis pine coffins are available with or without metal nails, since Orthodox Judaism (which teaches that nothing should delay the natural decomposition process) forbids metal in coffins. The cremation [WORD ILLEGIBLE] $24; the coffin kit, $115; the temporary (rectangular) pre-assembled coffin, $160, and the traditional (singular) one is $185. Cardboard coffins are just $25.
We're not against the funeral industry, said Herzog. "What we want to do is make available some options."
In Herzog's family, a coffin used as [WORD ILLEGIBLE] storage chest serves as an educational tool. "The presence of the coffin gives us a chance to explore our feelings about death, grief and living fully," said Herzog. When his children leave home, they each will receive a quilt handmade from their youthful clothes. "It's kind of a deprature gift," he said.
The ancient art of coffin-painting, highlighted by the collection of King Tut's burial artifacts, also is being revived in St. Francis circles. Earlier this year, Mame Cohalan, a local artist, painted her first coffin as a "cathedral of light, like a vaulted archway with a feeling of outer space." The Rev. Vienna Anderson, a deacon at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Northeast, purchased it.
"It's a privilege to be involved 'at last' in something that functions for people," said Cohalan. "There's something very compelling about painting a coffin. It appeals to a wide range of expression."
The ceremonial design in reds, oranges, yellow and blue is "joyful" and implies that death "is not contained in that box," Anderson remarked. "That's why I enjoy living with it. It doesn't feel macabre."
Formerly in her living room, the coffin stands prominently in Anderson's church office. "Most people don't say anything, as if they don't notice it," she said with a laugh. "It's startling to them. One woman asked me, "is it a real one?" And they're not used to seeing a painted coffin. They expect something somber."
At times, visitors have even criticized her coffin as "vulgar and ostentatious," she said.
Cohalan is confronted with another coffin in her southwest Washington studio - an unfinished one for herself. At times she has felt the need to apologize to visitors for its presence. But for her, it is comforting and has helped clarify feelings about dying.
Her husband, Michael, has even laid inside it - with the lid closed.
"To me," Mame Cohalan said, "the scariest environment is a hospital, not a coffin in one's living room."