Eight years ago, Santa Claus arrived at Roy “Bud” Davis’ home outside Murray to be measured for his coffin. Santa wore his off-season attire, a red jumpsuit, but his snowy hair and beard, and “Santa” stitched over one breast pocket and “North Pole” stitched over the other, left no doubt who he was.
“And his coffin sits in his living room in his trailer in Elizabethtown,” says Davis, sole proprietor of Bert & Bud’s Vintage Coffins. (Albert Sperath, his original partner, has passed on to what Davis considers his just reward—a job as director of the University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.)
Santa ordered a traditional “toe-pincher” coffin of the 19th century—one that widens from head to shoulders, then tapers toward the feet—with hand-painted Christmas images on the sides. While Davis counts Santa as his top celebrity customer, he has had other offbeat orders during his 12 years as a maker of custom coffins, urns, and reliquaries (containers that hold sacred relics or mementos of the deceased).
A PBS crew shot footage of Roy Blount Jr., the humorist, afloat in a Davis-made coffin resembling a steamboat for a documentary on life along the Mississippi River.
For a beekeeper friend, Davis made a scepter-shaped reliquary containing a queen bee embedded in honey. For a Native American quadriplegic in Louisiana, Davis built a cypress coffin, painted it in tribal colors, lined it with Indian blankets, and carved an eagle feather on the lid.
Recently, Davis has focused on creating a “near exact replica of the simple cypress coffin in which Pope John Paul II was laid to rest in 2005.”
Even though Davis does fulfill some unusual requests for custom coffins, “Most of the coffins I make,” he hastens to add, “are very serious and tasteful.”
Davis is an artisan who makes finely crafted wooden coffins, works of art for people who want to make some kind of personal statement. “Most people order something in the $1,200-$1,800 range.”
A pine or poplar kit coffin—it arrives to you flat, ready to assemble—is $645, or there’s the plain pine or poplar toe-pincher coffin with no finish or lining at $790. A fully finished toe-pincher or specialty coffin, such as a dollhouse, steamboat, or window seat, ranges around $2,500 to $3,000.
Urns start at $185 and top out at $385, “unless they want something special like precious or semi-precious stones.”
Like Santa, who found his vocation after a career as a truck driver, Davis, 67, came late to his as a wry practitioner of a dismal art. An artist, art teacher, and museum administrator for most of his working life, Davis turned coffin maker in part to exorcise demons from his family’s past.
When a sister died in 1992, Davis felt weighed down not only by her loss but also by grief passed down from his parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Research into family history heightened his sense of trans-generational grief.
A grandfather, Rollie Davis, who was beaten to death at a baseball game in 1908, turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. His wife, Fanny, had divorced him, but then she married another abusive husband and was disowned by her family. As a child, Davis’ father had accompanied her to the drugstore when she bought the chloroform she used to end her life.
Davis began making and exhibiting half-sized coffins as memorials to family members. They seemed to help others burdened by unresolved grief.
“I started thinking about building my own coffin then, and making it not just something to bury me in but to make it a work of art. And then I thought, ‘everybody’s ought to be a work of art.’”
Since then, Davis has decided on cremation, but he hasn’t gotten around to making his own urn as he stays busy.
He doesn’t really advertise. His Web site and the occasional press release seem to provide him plenty of exposure. He takes orders online and by telephone, building the coffins in his home workshop.
Trick-or-treaters, he says, always skip his house.
Custom-made coffins can be ordered elsewhere, but “I really haven’t seen any of them as finished and as custom as these are,” Davis says. “I don’t know how better to say it than that I’m the best.”
MORE ON BERT & BUD’S VINTAGE COFFINS
For information on Bert & Bud’s Vintage Coffins, contact Roy Davis at (877) 371-9279, by mail at P.O. Box 995, Murray, KY 42071, or go on the Web to www.vintagecoffins.com. The site shows pictures of different styles of coffins, as well as special-order coffins and coffins for pets.
Two urns and a Reliquary for a Queen Bee crafted by Davis will be on display through November 2 at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, 715 W. Main Street, Louisville, as part of the exhibit “Life Insight: The Human Experience.”