Paul Houser never planned on using his considerable woodworking skill to build caskets for the dead. But that changed in 1999, when his only son was delivered stillborn.
"I asked the funeral home if they had any little caskets and they said, 'No, we just do a cardboard-type box,'" Houser recalled. "I said, 'Would it be alright if I built a little miniature wooden casket for our son with the handles and everything?'"
The funeral home agreed, and Houser embarked on an unexpected vocation.
Carpenter by heart
At age 54, Houser is still a tall, muscular man with a handlebar mustache and calloused hands. He and his wife Ann now have four daughters. Earlier this winter, Houser took a break from building a new family home just outside of Palmer to talk with the Catholic Anchor.
Wearing a faded flannel shirt, work boots and dusty jeans, Houser looked every bit carpenter — a trade he discovered as a teenager and one he’s made a living at since retiring from the Air Force in 1995.
Previously stationed at air bases across the country, the couple settled in Palmer and became parishioners at St. Michael Church. Since then, Houser has built roughly 30 homes and – in an unexpected twist – begun crafting caskets.
Casket requests grow
The demand for Houser’s caskets grew at a heartbreaking rate. After his son was stillborn in 1999, a number of Houser's other loved ones died in quick succession.
"A year later, my stepfather died during a heart operation. But before he died he said, 'Can you build me a little box like you did for your son -- just in case things go bad.' Well they did, and he was cremated and put in that," the plain-spoken Houser said.
The following year, Houser's brother-in-law was dying of cancer. He, too, asked for a little casket to house his ashes.
As word of Houser's emerging craft spread, requests for his services grew.
Then last spring, he was charged with burying a dear family friend and settling her estate. In order to purchase a basic adult casket, however, many of his friend’s possessions had to be sold. It was then that Houser thought of expanding his skill set to constructing traditional, adult-size caskets. He thought it might be a way to provide a valuable service to people who were suffering.
"I called the funeral home here in Palmer and asked if they needed any inexpensive boxes for people who couldn’t afford much," he explained.
They did, and Houser soon started building caskets from home.
His preliminary model is already spoken for; it is the one he wants used for his own burial.
"That's my box. It's built for my size," Houser said. "When it's my time, the worst one I ever built will be mine," he added with a chuckle.
As for subsequent versions destined for the public, Houser has instructed the funeral home to sell them for less than a thousand dollars, and if someone can't afford anything at all, "I'll just give it to them," he said.
As a practice, he gives every tenth casket he makes to a local church.
The first of those went to the Knights of Columbus at his home parish of St. Michael in Palmer. The next one is headed to nearby St. Andrew in Eagle River or Sacred Heart in Wasilla.
"It’s like a tithe for the company," Houser explained. "The churches can use them for whoever they want. If they have someone who needs to use this, then I want them to use it, and then we’ll replace it."
"I don't want to be a millionaire from this," he added. "I want to make a little money but I also just want to make it happen as a good thing for people at their worst time."
Houser's four daughters, ages 8 to 14, have an appreciation for their dad's woodworking ways.
"In fact, they say you know I'm around when you can smell sawdust," Houser said with a smile.
Indeed, carpentry has become a bit of a family affair, with his daughters now taking part in the process.
"The girls think this is pretty cool," Houser said.
Twelve-year-old Hannah is the "little seamstress."
"She's really getting into lining the caskets now," Houser observed.
The 14-year-old twins help with the final finish and sanding, and his wife Ann is head of Houser's new company -- Feather Track Wood -- which formed last year.
"It just feels right" to build caskets, Houser explained. "Maybe this is what I need to be doing."
Down to earth
As the company grows, Houser aims to keep his caskets inexpensive, personal and as "down to earth as possible."
He said he wants to avoid the overly-polished and often depersonalized feel of a funeral industry which has become increasingly dominated by a few large companies that mass-produce caskets that typically cost in excess of $4,000.
Houser hopes to provide an alternative to the many caskets found online or in typical funeral home show rooms.
"They are all cookie cutter -- the only thing that changes is the corners and the trim," he said. "I custom-make them for each individual."
"We think about this, especially if it is for somebody ahead of time," he added. "This is the last piece of furniture they are ever going to use."
"Again, it is about the dignity of it," Houser continued. "I hope anyone who gets one of these says, 'This is unique and special. It's a humble way to go out.'"
He also hopes the affordable caskets help alleviate some of the stress for those who are left behind and mourning.
"Sometimes people come to a funeral home and they don't know what they are getting into," Houser said of the bereaved who are often blindsided by the exorbitant cost of caskets.
"People feel bad if they don't get an expensive casket, they feel cheap," he said. "I just want to make another way."
One tree, one casket
In building a casket, Houser tries to construct each one from a single tree.
"I'll cut it down low at the stump and we'll count back the rings and figure out how old it is, so we can say when the tree started growing," he said. "I got one tree that I built for a lady and it started growing in 1947. That had some significance for her."
Another started in 1969.
"That's the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon -- it's kind of unique," he said.
Houser tries to make his Alaska-bound caskets completely from "native wood right out of the Matanuska Valley, mostly birch and cottonwood."
As to the style, most requests are for simple caskets, “not steel vaults that will last a thousand years,” Houser said.
"There are people who just want a humble pine box, something that will just go right back into the ground."
Like Jesus and Joseph
When building a new casket, Houser tries to begin the project in prayer.
"I always try to say a little prayer to Saint Joseph to watch over me while I'm building them," he said. "He's the patron saint of carpenters, and I pray he will help keep me safe, that I do a good job and that whoever gets this casket will like it."
Houser is quick to observe that Saint Joseph and his foster son Jesus Christ were carpenters too.
"If it was good enough for Jesus and Joseph, it's good enough for me," he said. "You couldn't have better role models than them."
Mortality and eternity
When asked about how it feels to work in a profession that deals so closely with death, Houser said it is a privilege to help families lay their beloved to rest.
"I feel blessed to do this work," he said. "We can help people bury their loved ones -- ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We can be a part of that."
To learn more about hand-made caskets in Alaska visit FeatherTrackWood.com
This article originally appeared in the Catholic Anchor, the newspaper of the archdiocese of Anchorage, and is republished here with permission.