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Minn. Woman Finds Business In Handcrafted Coffins

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(credit: Jupiter Images)

(credit: Jupiter Images)

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DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Jude Collins says she couldn’t have prayed for a better location for her shop.

It’s on a busy street with a four-way stop and bus stop right in front and a cemetery just two blocks away.

“I can see motorists stopped, looking around and probably thinking, ‘Oh, my God, that looks like a casket in there. . It IS a casket!’ ” Collins said, enjoying the image.

She imagines them responding either by flooring it to get away quickly or by wanting to stop in out of curiosity.

“I think God has a terrific sense of humor,” she said of the shop at the corner of Woodland Avenue and Oxford Street in Duluth.

Collins recently opened the Duluth Casket Shop, selling the handcrafted wood coffins and cremains boxes she makes herself in her garage workshop.

Her hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and Saturdays by appointment so she still has time to build them.

It’s the only store of its kind around, since people traditionally have gotten caskets and cremains boxes from funeral homes. And it’s an unusual sight in Duluth’s Hunters Park neighborhood, especially at night, when an inside light casts an eerie orangish glow on a gleaming oak casket in the window and the cremains boxes displayed on the walls.

While the sight may make neighbors with a direct view uneasy, others have been supportive.

“People are enthusiastic, affirming and very, very supportive,” Collins said. “I think it’s an idea whose time has finally come.”

Jill Letendre, owner of The Flower Cart next door, is happy Collins has moved in, especially after the space had been empty for some time.

“We’re really excited to have her in the neighborhood,” Letendre said. “She will cater to a niche market. I think it will be a really good fit, especially with her in charge of it. As a person, she’s just so fantastic. It might not be something I would think to open, but I think she’s real talented.”

Teaming up with Collins, she even is offering discounts to the Casket Shop customers who get their flowers at her shop for the services.

A place to display the product At 67, Collins, a retired college psychology teacher, former psychotherapist and an Army veteran, shows no signs of slowing down. She has been making caskets for 11 years and expanded to cremains boxes about four years ago in response to the increase in cremations.

She says the potential market for the pet line she added in the last year is huge.

“Most people look on pets as family members,” she said. “We have ready-made cremains boxes, but we’re also establishing a line where the likeness of the pet is burnt onto the box.”

Her grandfather made caskets, but it was her father who taught her how to use tools when she was a girl. As an adult, she began making furniture. But when she built her first casket to help out a friend’s family, it set her in a new direction.

She liked making them and continued to make them in her spare time. It grew into a part-time business. But when her workshop became cramped, she looked for a storefront.

“I was really motivated to have somewhere to display the product,” she said. “People like to come in and touch and to feel and see. And that’s what they can do here. If I wanted the business to grow, I needed that dynamic aspect of the business.”

In most cases, people buy coffins for somebody else whose death is imminent, Collins said. Most are custom-made with the client choosing the style, wood type, color and lining material. With help from one of her part-time carpenters, Collins can make a coffin in two or three days.

But she would like to see more people order their own caskets. She can even modify them for other uses until they’re needed, such as a blanket chest, liquor cabinet or entertainment center.

Collins plans to build her own casket, but admits she hasn’t gotten around to it.

“I’ve got to get to it,” she said, anticipating a rush of orders.

Not competing with mortuaries Her prices start at $1,300 for a simple pine casket. Cremains boxes, for burial or for keeping, start at $135, but $200 is an average price for a more crafted box with details such as inlays. Small pet cremains boxes start at $39. Customized images, such as a tree or deer, can be burnt onto the boxes and caskets for an extra cost. Military veterans and centenarians can get a 15 percent discount.

“Our most expensive casket is very, very competitive to what the funeral home has,” Collins said. “We can put someone in a very nice, handcrafted casket for $2,000.”

But, she insists, she’s not competing with mortuaries.

“There always will be people who go to a funeral home and pick out a very pricey casket,” said Collins, noting that metal caskets are especially expensive. “If that’s what’s going to make them feel good, that’s what they should do. I’m trying to offer options to people. This is a product built by local people, with local materials. And that will speak to some people.”

Moreover, she says her store’s ambience is different.

“This is not a funeral home, this is a shop,” she said. “People can come in, look around and ask their questions. If they buy something, fine. If they don’t buy something, that’s OK.”

By offering a comfortable environment with warm earth colors, the pleasant smell of fresh wood and well-crafted wood products, she hopes to neutralize what people dealing with death are going through.

“As Americans, we don’t handle death very well,” she said. “We spend a lot of time avoiding it. So when it happens, we’re caught completely off guard.”

Dorothy Sandness of Hibbing, who got a cremains box for her mother’s ashes from Collins several years ago, likened Collins work as a type of ministry.

“She puts her heart and soul into it,” she said. “That personal touch makes that process so much easier. Knowing she made it by hand, made the process much more personal. And she is all about celebrating the lives of all the people she builds for.”

Collins hopes her storefront business becomes well-established, so that it can truly offer a service to people.

“And I’m confident that we can,” she said.

By CANDACE RENALLS
Duluth News Tribune

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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