Many people driving on Taneytown Road just north of the Maryland border are perplexed as they pass a coffin-shaped mailbox.
The structure is actually an advertisement for Mel Allen’s woodworking business where he makes “affordable” coffins purely from local, biodegradable resources.
“This is my full-time business,” said 44-year-old Allen. “I just opened March of last year.
“Everything I build is 100 percent biodegradable. I use all local pine, harvested right here in Gettysburg. Everything I use is local.”
Allen, of Mount Joy Township, has been self-employed in woodworking for “umpteen” years. His inspiration to go into casket making started a little less than a decade ago when a Catholic nun he knows from Washington state contacted him in an attempt to find an affordable coffin for a deceased sister. The funeral home’s charge was $4,500, but Allen shipped her a natural coffin for less than $1,200.
Along with unfinished pine, the materials in Allen’s coffins include wooden nails, rope handles, and non-toxic glue.
“It takes me about 25 hours from start to finish,” said Allen. “I buy rough-cut local pine, make the handles and design the top. The inside has a cotton pad that’s filled with wood shavings.”
His motivation to make coffins is to give people a more affordable and intimate alternative to funeral homes. Allen sells directly to families and consumers. He cannot legally act as a funeral director, but he can sell coffins to families, and families can be their own morticians. Embalming is not required by law, and a body will not begin to decompose for at least three days after death, according to Allen.
“The cost is about a third of what it would be for a conventional coffin at a funeral home,” said Allen. “The most expensive coffin I build is $1,300. Funeral homes generally have a 200 percent markup on their coffins.”
The average price of Allen’s coffins is $1,100, and all of his coffins are sold with a step-by-step process for what you need to do if you are going to have a home funeral.
Along with the financial savings, Allen wants people to realize the benefits and intimacy of a home funeral.
“The intimacy of having a home funeral is something that most people have never been exposed to,” said Allen. “(Home funerals are) less stress on the family. People don’t walk away from the funeral feeling like they’ve missed something. You can bury the person without being in shock. This is their normal environment. You realize that emotionally, and you’re not shocked anymore. You have time to say goodbye. You don’t have to do it between the hours of (for example) two and seven.”
In a home funeral, the deceased person is in his or her natural place of residence. Emotions can come and go because they do not have to be expressed around the deceased only during the viewing hours of a funeral home. In addition, because the pine is unfinished in natural burials, loved ones can etch notes into the coffin, which gives it a more personal feel.
“I consult with the family to do home burials, so the family can do the whole funeral without a funeral home and without spending thousands and thousands of dollars,” said Allen. “All of that can be done in Pennsylvania legally.”
After the funeral, families have the option of cremation or burial.
“(You can) take your coffin to the cremation facility, a very simple process that the funeral homes don’t want you to know,” said Allen.
The options for burial are a traditional cemetery or an open burial ground. As long as the casket fits in the cemetery’s concrete vault, as Allen’s caskets do, and the family buys a grave liner, the coffin can be buried in a traditional cemetery.
For a burial in an open burial ground, “you go out in the woods and pick a spot where you want it to be buried. There’s a few natural burial grounds in western Pennsylvania, but there’s nothing in eastern Pennsylvania yet,” said Allen.
Allen hopes to find a peace property and open a natural burial ground at some point to give local families that option.
The most unique aspect of Allen’s coffins is that he builds them so they can be used in the house before they are needed for their ultimate purpose. The coffins can be used as a bookshelf or a gun cabinet before they’re needed for burial.
With the book shelf or gun cabinet option, Allen makes the coffin with two parts to the lid. The top part hosts the gun cabinet or book shelves, and the bottom contains materials for the funeral including music, candles, and keepsakes. Having this prepared makes it easier on the family when the time comes to make funeral arrangements.
Allen builds two different types of coffins; the western style, also known as the “dracula” style, and the rectangular shape. The dracula shape is more expensive because it requires more parts including angled top and feet sections. Both styles have the same cotton-pad interior, and they come in three sizes ranging from 5 feet 8 inches to 6 feet 8 inches.
As might be expected, when a family member decides to make a career of building coffins, Allen’s family was not ecstatic about the idea when he first started this business.
“My wife was very opposed to it at the beginning,” said Allen. “When I first started in business, (she) was like, ‘Oh my God.’ She did not like it. Since then, she’s seen how having a home funeral would be so much more peaceful. (Now,) she has her own coffin in the basement, and it has bookshelves it in.”
If having his own coffin-making business is not enough to make him stand out, Allen installed a coffin as his mailbox.
“It definitely gets some people to turn around in the middle of the road and say ‘is that what I think it is?’ said Allen. “And it is what they think it is.”
As unusual as a coffin mailbox is, it is an easy form of publicity for Allen’s business. He puts flyers out by the mailbox with information about what he does, so it is easy for curious eyes to get information when they stop to ponder whether or not they actually saw that mailbox.
For more information, visit yourcountrycoffin.com or the “Allen’s Woodwork” page on Facebook.