Photo courtesy of Penn Forest Natural Burial Park.

Looking for an elegant piece of furniture that doubles as a tasteful memento mori? Penn Forest Natural Burial Park has a workshop for you.

Park staff are in the early phases of organizing a series of coffin-building classes set to begin this fall, hosted by funeral homes around the Pittsburgh region.

“The idea is you build a coffin at a workshop, you take it home with you and use for a coffee table or a bookcase,” explains Pete McQuillin, manager of Penn Forest Natural Burial Park. “When the time comes, you’ve got one. You’re all set.”

It may sound a bit surprising, even in an era when DIY projects are so popular.

But there’s some history to it: The original coffin makers in America were also furniture makers. And in the last several decades, as the cost of a traditional funeral has skyrocketed, many people are seeking out cheaper, environmentally friendly green burials that include a simple wood coffin.

This DIY workshop is a creative solution to those concerns.

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, McQuillin says exact dates for the workshop will be chosen once the Penn Forest team and local woodworker Wade Caruso finalize the designs of the 100 percent biodegradable coffins.

McQuillin will approve the final prototype early next week, and then Caruso will take two to three weeks to craft the materials. The plan is to hold the first workshop in late October or early November. McQuillin isn’t ready to estimate a price for the workshop and coffin kit, but the kits typically run somewhere between $500 and $1,000 online.

Hahn Funeral Home in Millvale has agreed to host the first workshop. If it’s successful, Burket-Truby Funeral Home in Verona will host the next one later this year, with more classes and locations to come.

So far, McQuillin says about a dozen people have expressed interest.

At Penn Forest, the proceeds from burials provide revenue for a wide variety of public events and activities, such as goat yoga and nature tours with local experts.

Our mission “is to restore a forest,” says McQuillin. “We’re using green burial to pay for that.”

Since 2011, the park has sold 376 burial lots and carried out 122 internments. McQuillin says he was originally attracted to the idea of green burial not only because of the cost-saving and environmental benefits, but also for the opportunity to be useful to his fellow Pittsburghers in their time of need.

“It makes me joyful,” he says, “to help people deal with sometimes the worst thing in their lives.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.