Making coffins is not your average woodworking hobby
“There are not many people making custom coffins,” says Roy “Bud” Davis. He has been making coffins since 1993 in his Murray workshop, Bert & Bud’s Vintage Coffins.
“Every one of them is my favorite coffin,” says Davis, who builds each to order on a “pre-need basis”—meaning before the person dies. No coffins or urns are kept in stock. He says, “It takes quite a while to do some of the fancier ones, several weeks.”
Davis is a lover of art and woodworking. With advanced degrees in art and design, he is a graduate of the School of the Dayton Art Institute and the University of Dayton, Ohio. His master’s degree is in Art Education from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Since 1966, he has taught art and humanities at secondary and college levels in Dayton. He also was the assistant director at New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum. Born in the tiny burg of Junction City near Danville, he moved back to Kentucky about 30 years ago, where he served as an art museum administrator at Murray State University. To keep refining his skills, Davis is taking a woodworking class at Murray State University, and has taken other woodworking courses at Murray.
Who’s the Bert part of the business? “That’s my good friend Albert Sperath, also an artist, who retired and moved away. We worked together at the art gallery at Murray State University. At the time, I had the idea and he had the workshop here in Murray.”
The beginning of the coffin business
Davis says he started making small memorial coffins to commemorate family members. “It was an idea that I came up with, it had never been done before. I did a series of memorial coffins that tell the stories of some of my ancestors and family members.”
In 1992, Davis’ sister died following heart surgery at the age of 56. The two of them had often talked about the many family stories passed along by their parents—stories about the murder of their father’s father and the suicide of his mother. On their mother’s side, there was the untimely death of her sister, the Christmas Eve funeral of her father, and her favorite nephew’s killing by a German sniper in World War II.
“They are really stories about the effects of unresolved transgenerational grief,” says Davis. “It became apparent to me that all of these people who had died long before I was born had had a tremendous impact on my life and personality.”
His grandfather’s memorial coffin tells the story about his rather gruesome death, with newspaper accounts of his killing lining the top of the coffin. The stand is built with baseball bats, and a baseball bat is inside—representing the way he died after causing some problems at a ballgame. Davis says the nephew’s memorial coffin has a battle scene of World War I with German soldiers surrounding a building. Letters and other mementos for each family member are kept in the memorial coffins.
Before long Davis started making full-size coffins for use. “I thought it would be interesting to build my own full-sized coffin as a work of art, exhibit it with the commemorative coffins, and then eventually be buried in it.” He says he then realized that “everybody deserves a distinctive, personalized coffin that is elegantly designed, meticulously crafted and one of a kind. After all, you only get one chance to make a lasting impression.”
How one orders a custom coffin
He says orders come in from all over the country. Most people ordering a coffin find him on the internet.“I talk with the person quite a bit about what they do for a living, what they like about living, to get some kind of idea what kind of person they are and what they are looking for. I have done everything from plain straight-sided pine coffins to some pretty ridiculous ones. Those are the fun ones to do.”
Davis says, “Most people are not interested in anything really absurd or different. They just want a nice handmade coffin. They are more interested in the wood they want and the style.”
Some of the more unique coffins he has made are the Black Gothic Toe-Pincher, the Pope John Paul II Replica, and even one for Santa Claus. The steamboat coffin was an example of a coffin he made early on for fun to show the diversity of his work. “Not many people have a coffin with smokestacks.”
He uses American woods such as poplar, oak, pine and walnut primarily. Although he likes all the wood he works with, he says his favorite might be walnut.
Davis says, “Most of my customers want to have them on hand. A lot of them use them for furniture until they pass.” Because they are fine wood, he says you have to store them in a climate-controlled area such as in your house.
Coffins can be picked up at his workshop in Murray or shipped.
“There’s no doubt that some people think I’m nuts. However, just about everybody I talk with is interested in knowing more.” Davis says most people want to know what kind of people buy these coffins. “They are just like anybody else, but maybe with a little more creative guts. It’s one of those things that people either recoil at the whole thought of death and dying and don’t want to talk about it, or are interested in talking about it and it’s a good idea. It doesn’t bother me if they think it’s a funny idea.”
While each coffin is custom and unique, made specifically for the person ordering it, Davis says, “compared to what a person would pay for a coffin at a funeral home, the prices compare very favorably.”
He also makes urns and reliquaries for humans or pets. Davis explains that urns hold ashes and reliquaries hold relics or something special for remembering the person or pet. “One of the first urns I did was a friend who raises bees, about 25 years ago. Her first queen bee died and I asked her if she wanted an urn for it. I made a septum and a stand. The queen bee is in a glass container filled with honey and the bee is at the bottom. The septum lifts out of the stand.”
One wonders if Davis has made his own coffin? “No, but it’s getting closer, I’m 79. I may wind up using the coffin that is behind me in the photo (in the magazine). It is filled with colorful fabric and I recently added a beautiful flame carving to the top.”
You can see a variety of creative custom coffins, urns and reliquaries on Davis’ website at Bert & Bud’s Vintage Coffins.