What to do with the dead?
The funniest picture in Montana Magazine’s profile of coffin-maker Willy von Bracht shows him and an assistant putting the cover on a casket painted to look exactly like a giant box of Marlboro cigarettes. This was a “personal project” of von Bracht, whose lively sense of humor informs his business, Sweet Earth Caskets and Cradles, founded 38 years ago in Kalispell. The motto on his van, for example, trumpets: “From the Womb to the Tomb.” Some of von Bracht’s handmade caskets are designed to be used for other purposes until needed; he’s made coffin bookshelves and coffee tables, and one casket even serves as a toolbox in his house. “I wouldn’t be caught dead without it,” he says.
But von Bracht, 64, is deadly serious about removing the funeral business from the hands of paid directors and putting decisions about embalming, burial and a memorial service back in the hands of family and friends. “What folks sometimes forget is that the religious rituals, the words spoken by friends, the eulogy, anything which can be done at a canned, funeral-home run funeral can be done, if desired, at an alternative funeral,” he says on his website, . What matters most at a service, he adds, has nothing to do with Cadillac hearses, fancy caskets or the pinstriped suits on the “transporters”; it’s people gathering to pay tribute to a loved one and to comfort one another. And rather than paying $7,300 for a funeral — the average cost of one in Montana in 2006 — he offers the bargain basement price of $200 for a recycled cardboard coffin. Surprisingly, the most expensive model at $1,400 turns out to be the “old pine box” because of its distinctive color and dramatic wood grains. Von Bracht once worked as a smokejumper and reporter for the Missoulian, but he had to become a lobbyist to crack open the funeral directors’ hold on what happens to the dead. He and members of Missoula’s University Congregational Church worked hard to change state burial regulations so that nowadays, neither embalming or coffins are required, “and bodies can be buried on private land.” Von Bracht says, “You might have a hard time selling your property later, but you can do it.”