RED LICK — You might say Lee Roberson has a down-to-earth pastime. He makes handmade coffins.
When he isn't busy bricklaying, Roberson fashions coffins from wood he cuts from his southern Madison County farm or buys from lumberyards. He is among a few artisans who make coffins in Kentucky.
"I try to put as much care as I can into them," Roberson said.
Behind the house he built, in a workshop he built, Roberson works on his latest coffin: a cedar "toe pincher," so named because it is much narrower at the bottom than it is at shoulder level.
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Roberson, 46, cut the cedar from a steep hill on his 135-acre farm near the Jackson County line. Then he dragged the wood using his team of two Percheron horses, Brick and Block, and cut the pieces in his sawmill.
Cedar shavings curl from a hand plane as Roberson scrapes the tool across the reddish wood. The cedar smells as fresh and clean as the keepsake chests in which quilts have been stored for generations.
In a blacksmith shop that extends below the workshop, Roberson hammers out the steel corner braces and the round grip handles that will go on the sides of the coffin. Roberson said he began making coffins three years ago because it was a way to combine his woodworking and blacksmithing abilities.
"I'm more mechanical than intellectual, I guess you'd say," Roberson said. "The Lord's kind of blessed me with my hands. If it wasn't for my hands, I'd be a lost puppy."
Once the coffin exterior is finished, Roberson lines the interior with a white linen padding. It takes about two weeks to complete each box. He has made coffins from poplar and pine, but he prefers poplar, which is a yellowish wood with dark streaks.
"It's got a lot of grain and a lot of color," Roberson said. "And with the grain in the wood, it makes a very pretty coffin."
This cedar coffin is for Joe Isaacs, 64, a bluegrass musician who has played numerous times on the Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville. Isaacs, who had open-heart surgery 10 years ago, likes Roberson's work.
"He builds a real nice casket," Isaacs said. "That appealed to me because my dad was a poor old mountain preacher, and he built coffins, and my mother would line them, and they buried people. ... Our neighbors and close friends and people like that that didn't have money, Daddy would build them a coffin and bury them for nothing. Or sometimes they'd pay for the lumber."
Roberson has donated coffins to friends and those in need, but he hopes to turn the hobby into a business. He charges $1,450 for a coffin.
Some people think they have to buy a coffin through a funeral home. But a funeral provider cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn purchased elsewhere — or charge you a fee to do so, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Nevertheless, most consumers in Kentucky choose to buy caskets through funeral homes, said Roy "Bud" Davis of Murray. For 17 years, Davis has made and shipped burial boxes to buyers all over the country through Bert & Bud's Vintage Coffins (company mottoes: "You get only one shot at making a last impression" and "Don't be caught dead without one"). But few of his custom creations are sold to Kentuckians.
"I think in terms of funerals, there's a pretty conservative mind-set," Davis said. "They don't want to be too different than everybody else. And a lot of people are ignorant of the laws, and they feel like they have to buy it from a funeral home."
Of course, people who order coffins and have them delivered to their homes need a place to store them. The Web site for Bert & Bud's Vintage Coffins tells of customers who have used them as coffee tables in their homes (one woman referred to hers as her "end table") until their ultimate purpose is required.
Roberson stores two finished coffins on the second floor of his house — one near a desk and the other at the foot of a bed. He hopes to build 10 to have on hand for sale, then take orders for more after that.
Roberson, who is married and has three grown daughters, said he doesn't think about his own mortality while making coffins.
"Personally, I don't want to be buried at all," he said. "I don't like little places and I can't stand the thought of being buried, being underground. As far as what they put me in, I don't really care."