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Coffin Craftsmen

March 11, 2014, 9:57 PM by Perry Groten

Coffin Craftsmen

Sadly, the weather extremes of winter have taken their toll on the elderly and on South Dakota's old soldiers, in particular. That means it's been a busy time of year for those who offer one final salute to those who've served their country. 

In a back room at the Sioux Falls VFW, volunteer woodworkers apply their hobby toward the hereafter.

"It's just a pleasure to see my work that's going to one of the vets," VFW member Don Norton said.

They build wooden coffins from scratch. A gift to military veterans from those who are eternally grateful for their service.

"It's a labor of honor and respect for our fellow veterans," VFW Post 628 Commander Butch Haugen said.

It's part of Veterans Honored Interment, a program that started at the Veterans Home in Hot Springs and has since expanded to eastern South Dakota.

"There are veterans that are the only one left, so they have no family. We are their family. We take care of them," Haugen said.

The volunteers gather once a week. They can build a complete coffin, from start to finish, in about 20 hours.

"If we have three of us, we can put it together in a day, just the basic shell, then the rest of it takes time," Norton said.

The volunteers use their own tools. Most of the materials, from the oak to the handles, are purchased locally. They follow a building pattern borrowed from the monks at the old Blue Cloud Abbey. Yet each coffin is unique: distinct in the wood grain and the challenges they sometimes present.

"We boo-boo once in a while, hope we can hide it," Norton said

Leftover wood goes into the making of cremation urns. Norton says he's even making an urn of his own. But he's too focused on the finished product to dwell on his own mortality.  

"You know, I don't think about it. It's just working with the wood and yeah, it's going to be mine," Norton said. 

Demand for these coffins usually peaks at this time of year.  A lot of older veterans haven't been able to survive this cold, harsh winter.

"We all get older, the seasons get harder on us. So as the seasons get harder on us, we're apt to lose more of our elderly people and in this case, we lose our older veterans and it gets busy about this time of year," Haugen said.

The volunteers have a waiting list of 22 coffins. But they can't build without donations from the public. They welcome any financial help. The solemn simplicity of the wooden coffins they assemble honors the sacrifices of South Dakotans who've fallen but aren't forgotten. 

Veterans are also asked to make a minimum donation, but they won't be denied a coffin or an urn if they cannot afford it.

If you'd like to make a donation to Veterans Honored Interment, call the Sioux Falls VFW at (605) 338-0869.

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