Kenneth Copp, a self-described Amish atheist, crafts simple pine-box coffins designed to more quickly allow the body to return to the earth.
Kenneth Copp talks about the benefits of a plain pine casket and burial shrouds when it comes after-life care. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

Kenneth Copp has no interest in becoming a mummy when he dies.

But that’s what he said often happens in this country, where bereaved family or friends buy into the after-life marketing that is expensive and environmentally unfriendly.

When his time comes, Copp wants nothing more than to be recycled into an apple tree.

It’s a plan that melds perfectly with his pragmatic view of death and his desire to live a sustainable life to the grave and beyond.

He’s not alone in wanting to keep end-of-life logistics simple, and the furniture maker has created a niche for himself producing plain pine coffins out of his Locust Grove Woodworks shop in Thorndike.

Copp was living and building furniture as part of a Mennonite community in Tennessee in the 1990s. There he started crafting coffins for community members who were preparing for their own deaths or that of loved ones.

He moved to Maine 13 years ago and joined an Amish community in Waldo County. He has since separated from the Amish church, but maintains that lifestyle.

His home and shop are connected to the power grid, but Copp tries not to rely on that source of electricity as much as possible. Where practical, he instead uses tools and devices powered by rechargeable batteries or horses. Even his car is an all-electric model.

It’s all part of Copp’s goal to reduce his carbon footprint on the planet. Which brings him to coffins — pretty much the last piece of furniture anyone is going to buy and use.

Maine law does not require a body be embalmed or buried in a casket with a concrete or metal liner. That means if a hole in the ground and a simple casket or shroud is all you want, it’s all you need.

Chemical embalming, orange coffins and concrete or metal liners are all extraneous and expensive, Copp maintains. He believes it is a waste of resources to try to preserve a human body after death.

“All of that is absolutely unnecessary,” Copp said. “We are not trying to mummify ourselves or do they think people are going to want to be exhumed years later and put on display?”

As far as Copp is concerned, when a person dies, they simply cease to exist in any form.

“There should of course be respect for the dead,” he said. “No one should just be tossed in a ditch after they die.”

Kenneth Copp, a self-described Amish atheist, crafts simple pine-box coffins designed to more quickly allow the body to return to the earth.
Kenneth Copp makes plain pine caskets in his Thorndike workshop. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

For Copp, the practical, low-impact solution is burying the body in a simple wood box during a private ceremony. Even better, forget coffins and opt to be wrapped in a burial shroud made of natural materials.

Either way, he said, your body is going to be absorbed into the earth, and it’s a far less expensive process in Maine, where a standard funeral with coffin averages around $7,500.

His handmade coffins can be outfitted with a burial shroud made of recycled materials by Nancy Rosalie, also of Thorndike.

Rosalie uses repurposed fabrics to sew the made-to-order shrouds on a foot treadle sewing machine, and Copp has his eye on one for his own after-life care.

Cremation should never be an option, he said.

Copp feels the cremation process creates unnecessary carbon emissions in addition to releasing dangerous heavy metals if the deceased had been outfitted with a pacemaker or other mechanical devices.

“I want to be wrapped in a shroud and buried, knowing it’s only going to take me two to three months to decompose,” Copp said. “I have a spot all picked out in a nearby graveyard and will have an apple tree planted on my grave so the apples can use the elements of my body.”

Copp constructs his coffins using no metal hardware. Instead, he shapes the corners to fit snugly together and attaches them using glue and thin wooden fasteners known as “biscuits.”

For handles, he weaves inch-and-a-quarter rope through holes in the side of the coffins.

Once the construction is finished, he places a simple cotton mattress stuffed with tiny bits of wood shavings known as “wood wool,” or excelsior. For a final touch, he sprinkles the wood wool into the coffins to give them a pleasant, piney scent.

There are six coffins on display in Copp’s showroom. Most are rectangular in shape, but there are two made in the familiar shape of a narrow top and bottom and wider where a body’s shoulders would rest. All are a standard 6 feet long and range in price from $900 to $1,200.

Copp takes great pride in his work, and he also crafts tables, desks, chairs and other furniture out of oak, cherry or maple.

But his coffins are of pine only, befitting his pragmatic worldview.

“It just seemed too much of a shame to put a beautiful piece of furniture wood into the ground,” he said.

Plus, pine breaks down fairly quickly once buried, and the faster that happens, the quicker the body can return to the earth.

That may be the closest Copp comes to any sort of religious sentiment to his notions of the afterlife.

“In the Christian Bible it talks about ‘for dust you are and to dust you shall return,’” he said. “So why not recycle myself after I die?”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.