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St. Paul coffin maker aims to bury on the cheap

ST. PAUL, Minn. — When it comes to selling coffins, Mike Zoff is thinking outside the box.

The 57-year-old Arden Hills resident has just set up shop in a tiny storefront on Smith Avenue on St. Paul’s West Side, put a wooden coffin in the window and stuck up a sign announcing “Coffin Shoppe.”

And how much is that coffin in the window?

Not much.

Zoff, who builds the coffins himself, hopes to bury the competition by selling discount but dignified containers that start at $225 for the plainest, unfinished pine box. The prices at Affordable Coffins & Artery will range up to about $800 for fancier, custom jobs.

It’s still dirt cheap, Zoff said, compared with the $2,000 to $8,000 you might spend for a metal casket at a funeral home. Zoff said his prices are even lower than those of other vendors of plain wooden coffins. Wooden caskets being made and sold by a Trappist monastery in Iowa, for example, start at $1,000.

“My price points are significantly under what I have found,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/yMny2y). “I’m way under everybody.”

The prices are even less for the smaller boxes Zoff is offering, like a 4-foot by 18-inch model he built.

“That’s a suitable size for a youth or a good-sized German shepherd,” Zoff said.

Zoff said he hopes his coffins will appeal to several niches, including people who want to save a buck, people who are looking for an eco-friendly funeral or Jews, Muslims or Hmong with religious traditions requiring a simple wood container.

Zoff’s products should appeal to traditionalists. One model he’s made uses no metal in its construction. It’s put together with wood pegs and has rope for handles. Another model is made of wood siding.

“It’s like the cabin look,” he said. “We do plywood and cedar.”

He also builds tapered “toe-pincher” coffins, the kind you see in Western movies, which are still popular in Europe.

“Some people call this the John Paul design,” he said. “The pope was buried in something of this configuration.”

Zoff said customers can buy a coffin to be used in the future. In the case of an unexpected death, you could take what’s available in the showroom, or Zoff could build something new in about 24 hours.

He said customers can pick up the coffins themselves, or he can deliver them directly to a funeral home in the area. Federal regulations require funeral homes to allow customers to use a coffin they’ve bought elsewhere without charging an extra fee.

Zoff said he’d eventually like to create a self-assembled coffin that could be shipped to mail-order customers.

He said he started thinking about making and selling cheap coffins about two years ago when his sister-in-law died and he saw the prices funeral homes were charging for coffins.

“People bury a lot of money for a few hours of ego,” he said.

Zoff has firsthand knowledge of that. His grandparents and parents were in the funeral home business, operating the O’Brien-Zoff funeral home at Lexington and University avenues in St. Paul from 1938 to 1996.

Although Zoff grew up working in a funeral home, he’s made his living as a real estate broker. The coffin business is a part-time second business.

“Real estate isn’t what it once was,” he said.

Zoff isn’t alone in getting into the handmade wooden coffin business. Last March, Jude Collins, a retired college psychology teacher, opened the Duluth Casket Shop, a storefront that sells the wooden coffins she’s been building for the past 12 years.

Her coffins, made in a variety of woods, including yellow birch and cherry, start at $1,300.

Mark Harris, author of a book called “Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial,” said affordability, interest in green burials and do-it-yourself funerals, and a desire to buy locally made products are driving growth in the wooden coffin business.

“My sense is there are growing number of carpenters and woodworkers adding wood caskets to product lines of furniture, which is what furniture makers traditionally used to do,” Harris said. “This is one more piece of furniture, sort of the final piece of furniture.”