Bryan Schoening: Coffin It Up

Bryan Schoening: Coffin It Up

Halloween is just a few days away, and that’s great news for woodworker Bryan Schoening and his wife, Dusty. It’s the one day of the year when everyone else is on the same page as they are. All year long they drive hearses as their auto of choice (they own five of them), and make their living crafting everything imaginable in the shape of coffins, including coffins.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. Bryan and Dusty are anything but ghoulish. In fact, they are very normal, happy folks. So how does a pleasant, outgoing family find itself in the coffin trade?

“I made my first coffin five years ago as a Halloween prop when living in Oregon ,” Bryan explained. “We’ve always loved Halloween, and my daughter’s friends thought it would be fun to have a coffin, and have someone jump out of it to scare her friends. I grabbed a couple sheets of plywood and a circular saw, but soon discovered it was not as easy as I first thought. Nevertheless, I got hooked on the shape, details, and getting the miters correct, and it blossomed from there.”

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Blossom it did. Drop by hisĀ web site, and you’ll see coffee tables, mirrors, jewelry boxes, bookshelves, pet beds, CD racks and even an entire kitchen all crafted in traditional coffin shapes. Many of the bookcases and coffee tables are ordered by customers for their eventual personal use underground, and are doing double duty, until the time comes, as household furniture.

“The first coffin was a prop,” admits Bryan , “but the next one was a bookcase for my living room; then came a sewing chest. I started filling the house with coffin-shaped furniture. Visitors to the house would always say we should sell them, so three years ago, after moving to an area near Las Vegas , we created the web site, and got an order within a week. It was for a coffin-shaped shelf.”

Of course, he also makes real coffins, typically ordered by folks who are not yet ready to use them. “Some people want to go out in a certain style, and want to choose it themselves. Often, they have a preconceived design in their head. Since everything I do is custom work, that is fine. Many of the pre-need orders go to morticians, forensic scientists and psychiatrists. In fact, one of the most popular among morticians is the reaper coffin, which has a stylized inlay of the grim reaper on the lid.

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“Most of my coffins are sold pre-need,” Bryan admitted, “but once I made a coffin for someone who was already dead. It was a European whose family felt he should be buried in a more traditional coffin. They kept him on ice for two months while I finished it.”

His path to this unusual woodworking niche was anything but direct, but it does give a few clues to what led him here. “After high school, I did a lot of traveling. I was a runaway at 15, and was on the road when I met my wife in Los Angeles . We moved all over the western US, with me doing odd jobs and working as a handyman.”

Then, an unfortunate event changed his life. “In 1997, my parents were killed by a drunk driver in a truck. At the time, they owned a restaurant in Colorado , near Leadville, and suddenly, I was a restaurant owner at 27. I had worked in the restaurant growing up, so I went back, got it running smoothly, then sold it. We moved to Oregon , found a school that my daughter liked, and settled in a town with only 143 inhabitants.

“I worked part-time in the one and only restaurant in the tiny town, part-time as a handyman at the local school, and part-time driving a truck, which was a way to help me deal with my parents’ death, caused by a truck.

“The loss of my parents in many ways spawned this whole thing. Ironically, my father had recently quit drinking and smoking, and was watching his diet when he was killed.” That tilted his philosophy a bit. “Seize the day,” he advises. “Today could be your last.” He says he does not concentrate on the end, but focuses on the trip to the end, and rather enjoys himself along the way. This explains his penchant for dual-purpose coffins that can be used for two very different tasks.

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His parents’ death also steered him into a peculiar line of charity work. He is heavily involved with, and lectures for, a group called Every 15 Minutes, which works to stop drunk driving. The group’s name comes from their explanation that every 15 minutes, someone in the United States dies from an alcohol-related traffic collision.

Just before prom night, Every 15 Minutes puts on car accident reenactments outside high schools across the country. They try to make it as realistic as possible, with ambulances, cops and actors playing dead and mangled student drivers. Bryan lends his hearses for the shows in his area, and also speaks to the students. “I go in, tell my story, and take a coffin with me,” Bryan says with a chuckle, “and advise the kids to think outside the box.”

Before you ask, no, Bryan has not made his own coffin yet. “As soon as I make one that cannot be improved upon,” he says, “that will be mine.” Since he is always improving, I guess that means he will have to live forever.

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