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Traditional caskets help heal wounds

Dan Bischoff, Of the Record staff

Beyond the mourning, funerals bothered a young John Sundberg as he witnessed loved ones, including his father, put to rest.

"The most disturbing thing is when you know someone so well and love them so much and you remember the last time you see them," Sundberg said. "Then they come back and they’re, in essence, pickled and painted."

His memory of those moments remained clear as he grew up, got married and started a family in Oakley. In 1996, his teenage daughter, Robin Mary, died in a car accident.

A lifetime later, he was, once again, forced to observe the death of a loved one.

"The hardness of dead flesh is something I don’t want to experience again," Sundberg said. "That was disturbing as a youth. I want to avoid that as much as possible."

Sundberg utilized his 35 years of experience with woodworking to make it so. Never again would he have to bury a family member in the same way.

He studied various cultures and found, what he believed, to be a better way to bury the dead among Jewish and Muslim cultures.

"I just like the attitude behind it. I thought it was very touching," Sundberg said.

Sundberg says in those cultures, families take care of their own and bury them within 24 hours. Some of them don’t even have viewings.

As part of his search for a more fitting way to bury a loved one, Sundberg formed Proprius Casket and Coffin Company. He handcrafts simple, traditional, solid wood caskets and coffins, which are "proper, dignified and beautiful." They are constructed with dovetail, tongue and groove joinery, secured with wooden peg-nails. There is no finish on the product just a coat of wax.

"The simplicity makes it a very clean product," Sundberg said.

The company was formed to offer a casket utilizing only natural materials, influenced by traditional Jewish casket requirements.

"I have never seen a casket that I thought looked good or appropriate," Sundberg said. "I was not comfortable with the three that I’ve purchased. This is my attempt to bring something to the market that I liked."

The coffins come with options to grieving families.

"In terms of linings, in place of shredded newspaper, I offer shavings from the casket for a mattress," Sundberg said. "I offer a cotton-lined mattress if people don’t want the shavings."

Clients can provide personal belongings, have the option to pick the closing method of the casket upon burial and can place in wooden nails on their own.

"It’s up to the family," Sundberg said, "to do it themselves."

Sundberg isn’t targeting his product toward Jewish or Muslims, but he appreciates the reverence in how other cultures treat the deceased and hopes to apply it to other demographics.

"The key part is the way they handle their dead," Sundberg said. "They try to do as much of it themselves. In the Jewish tradition, the body is never left alone. They focus on that individual then it shifts to the family. Their mourning practices are more effective in grief maintenance."

Part of Sundberg’s inspiration comes from the writer Wendell Berry.

"He’s somewhat of a philosopher," Sundberg said.

A particular novel he wrote was about an old small town that Sundberg said, "touches on the death element in dealing with and burying people." The residents in the town were taking turns as the gravedigger and it was robbing people of the privilege of burying their own.

"Even if you look at poetry in the 19th century, all of these people were writing things on burying and how it was necessary to take care of it themselves," Sundberg said.

Sundberg says the culture in America, particularly the funeral industry, has lost some of that perspective. The industry, he says, is focused more on business than on people.

"The funeral industry has a horrible reputation," Sundberg said. "With organ donation and harvesting of parts that people never know about."

Sundberg said there are guidelines for burials, but he said individuals can do much of the work without a funeral director.

"There’s a lot you can do yourself," Sundberg said. "I will handle the burial myself. I’ll meet all of the qualifications and I want to be the one to put them to rest."

The effort required to handle all of it without a funeral director can benefit family members of the deceased.

"It keeps the people involved. It does, in a sense, give a cause to consider life," Sundberg said. "Anyone who I have buried has been done by someone else, that’s oftentimes an uncomfortable thing to do.

"This is a shift in how American people take care of their dead."

Sundberg’s product has been for sale in a few funeral homes. The simple coffins contrast with the elaborate, expensive caskets.

"Oddly enough, (funeral directors) couldn’t believe how fresh it looked; how clean, how pure," Sundberg said. "Their comment was they actually like this."

Sundberg and his wife, Ruth, started Custom Walrus Woodworking years ago.

"We do traditional woodworking," Sundberg said. "We are experts with solid wood. We cover almost all designs and styles. The level of execution is above what most people do or are used to."

Walrus can craft any type of custom designed furniture. The Sundbergs work with hardwood and softwood including cherry walnut, oak and some exotics.

"You can think about any piece of furniture you have seen and we’ve done some variance of it," Sundberg said.

The two have designed and built everything from tables and chairs, ladders, stairs, small crossing bridges and fenceposts. A lot of their clients are collectors who want one-of-a-kind items to hold or display their collections.

The company and their marriage are intertwined. Ruth came to Utah from Boston and started the business. John shared her shop space and a relationship evolved. They moved to Oakley in 1978 after they were married and continued their business.

Sundberg said his wife is the artistic talent in the family, which creates a complete team. Their son, Clifford John, is also temporarily helping with the business while their son Joshua Tree works in California in the mortgage business.

"I’m not artistic but I’m quite a good technician," Sundberg said. "I could not do what (Ruth) does, she’s the designer. In terms of conceptual, she does wonderful presentations to clients and rendered drawings."

Proprius is a branch of the business that continues their love for woodworking.

"I constantly marvel at the amount of beautiful lumber coming our way. It’s so eco-friendly, it’s truly a renewable resource," Sundberg said.

"I like to build things and build them very well," Sundberg continued. "I like working with a material that’s hard to work with and have it come out essentially flawless. That, to me, is a satisfying element."

Proprius Casket and Coffin Company and Custom Walrus Woodworking is located in Oakley. For more information, call (435) 783-5530 or go to http://www.propriuscasket.com.


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