Eye on KELOLAND: Service in sawdust


SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — Local volunteers, who build coffins and urns for South Dakota veterans and their spouses, expect to be even busier now that the state veterans cemetery in Sioux Falls is open. The group called “Veterans Honored Interment” has workshops in both Sioux Falls and Hot Springs. The organization has grown in its outreach of providing a final tribute.

Local veterans, from all branches of the military, join forces in a woodworking project that builds upon their already strong bonds.

“No matter what war you’ve been in or what branch of service you’re in, everybody’s just really close and it’s a good working environment,” Navy veteran Gary Campbell said.

Volunteers work together to build a coffin

The volunteers build oak plywood caskets for their fellow veterans through the non-profit Veterans Honored Interment. Darla Larsen had to quit her job to care for her ailing husband for ten years. She was grateful to pay a donation for a wooden coffin when he died in 2015.

“Finances could have been really difficult and I knew that there’s an opportunity that was going to help us out a lot. I was so grateful for the things that these volunteers did, I wanted to personally thank them,” Larsen said.

The program had humble beginnings from the start. Volunteers had to bring their own tools to build the caskets and urns. Now, they use donated equipment. Their cramped quarters located in the old VFW building has been replaced by a spacious donated workshop.

“The gentleman here gave us 16-hundred square feet to build in and actually it’s beyond that because now we have a couple trailers that we use to transport our caskets throughout the state of South Dakota to Mobridge, Aberdeen, Pierre, Yankton,” Veterans Honored Interment board member Roger Van Noort said.

Demand for the volunteers’ coffins and urns is expected to grow with the opening of the new State Veterans Cemetery in Sioux Falls.

“And we’ve already noticed we have been issuing more and more urns that were being held by the funeral homes until the cemetery opened and we’re now releasing them,” Van Noort said.

“My brother is in the national cemetery by Sturgis, and I would probably like to be in this new one out here and actually, I’d like to build my own urn,” Campbell said.

The high cost of lumber created by supply chain bottlenecks hasn’t kept the volunteers from building their coffins.

“We have an agreement from a wholesaler here in town, they sell us the wood cheaper than they sell any of their customers, and they’ve held the line on prices for us, it’s been a blessing for us,” Van Noort said.

The dedicated volunteers would work round-the-clock if they could. But in the heat of summer, they knock-off a little early.

“We typically stop building about noon. We might start at 8:30 and stop building at noon. And we’ve built enough where we have an inventory where we can take a break for a little while,” Van Noort said.

Organizers are hoping other states borrow their blueprint so this building project can go nationwide. Their craftsmanship is an eternal tribute from one veteran to another.

“It’s actually an honor and a privilege to be able to build a burial vessel for other veterans that passed before us,” Campbell said.

Volunteers through the years have built nearly one-thousand coffins in Sioux Falls and Hot Springs, plus 300 urns.

If you’d like to order a coffin, or want to volunteer, or donate to the program, click here

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