Endings and renewals: Formerly incarcerated men build kosher caskets

Woodworker Alfredo Baca lies in a completed kosher casket, which woodworkers then carry around the shop to listen for creaking and cracking sounds. The caskets are designed to hold up to 500 pounds. Clockwise from left are Larry Gregory, Ere Maldonado, Richard Webb and Francisco Solis. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

They have led lives eroded by addictions, violence and prison, but with all that behind them, the men working in the wood shop at Fathers Building Futures are reconstructing their own lives while building something reverential.

The men, all of them fathers, have been trained to build kosher caskets used by members of the Jewish community – although the simple wooden construction has grabbed the attention of others who are interested in them as a final resting receptacle.

The Hebrew word “kosher” roughly translates to “fit” or “clean.” Consequently, a kosher casket is made completely of wood and held together by nontoxic and biodegradable glues, pegs and dowels. There is no plastic or metal, including hinges, screws or nails.

In a traditional Jewish funeral, bodies are not embalmed and the bottom of the casket has openings or intentionally drilled holes so contact with the bare soil in a grave hastens decomposition, explained Albuquerque Rabbi Min Kantrowitz.

Woodworker Richard Webb lines up boards in clamps after layering the board edges with nontoxic glue. The woodworking crew can assemble one kosher casket per day, although the shop workers also produce other items that are for sale at Fathers Building Futures. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Fathers Building Futures is a nonprofit economic development initiative for men who have been released from incarceration. By participating in one of four micro businesses – auto detailing, truck driving, mobile power washing and custom woodworking – they learn life skills, such as how to maintain a job, get along with supervisors and fellow workers and how to manage their money.

“If you take unemployment, poor housing, a lack of financial know-how and then combine addiction, you arrive back in prison,” said program executive director Emet Ma’ayan. “We’re responding to the state’s nearly 50 percent recidivism rate. Our solution is not necessarily to teach a trade, but to teach the soft skills that go along with that, and then use our network to help them find permanent jobs.”

By doing that, Ma’ayan said, the men are able to overcome post-incarceration social barriers “and deal with child support, pay their debts, grow out of poverty and become responsible citizens, parents and taxpayers.”

The retail area of Fathers Building Futures displays items created in the nonprofit’s wood shop, including kosher caskets, tables, shelving units, and ornamental cutting boards and Lazy Susan trays. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Leading the team that assembles the kosher caskets is Francisco Solis, who had been incarcerated for five years on federal drug charges. Initially a client at Father’s Building Futures, Solis, 31, is now a full-time employee.

“I don’t get creeped out about making caskets. Preparing for death is part of life,” Solis said. “These caskets are simple and all natural and designed to return to the earth. You know, ‘dust to dust.’ I appreciate that some people think we’re making something that has religious or spiritual meaning, and we’re sensitive to that.”

The men in the wood shop were already producing high quality tables, book shelves, ornamental cutting boards, Lazy Susan trays and other items when Ma’ayan had the idea to introduce kosher caskets. The notion sprang from his experience as a volunteer with Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish Burial Society.

When a member of the Jewish community dies, burial should take place within 24 hours. Society members are called to a funeral home to ritually wash the body, wrap it in a white shroud, recite psalms and place the deceased in a kosher casket.

“It gave me an insight into how funeral homes work and how they quietly partner with the Jewish community,” Maya’an said. Maya’an also learned that most funeral homes purchase kosher caskets from two major national suppliers, both out of state.

Heart-shaped urns to hold cremation ashes are produced by the wood shop workers at Fathers Building Futures. (Funeral Consumers Alliance)

The folks at French Funerals and Cremations agreed to mentor the woodworkers at Fathers Building Futures and teach them how to become a local vendor. They also allowed them to examine a kosher casket to see how it was constructed.

Ma’ayan then called upon Rabbi Kantrowitz to meet with the men and explain what a kosher casket is and their religious significance to the Jewish community. But the men are also doing something spiritual for themselves.

The Jewish concept of “Tikkun,” means to heal or repair, Kantrowitz said. “These men have been incarcerated and many lived violent lives, so this is one way for them to rebalance, heal and repair from their past lives.”

Working with Albuquerque furniture maker and artist Hershel Weiss, the woodworkers came up with a design for the caskets, which measure 76 inches long, 24 inches wide, 15 inches deep and are fitted with hemp rope handles. They can produce one a day.

The caskets are certified as kosher by the Rabbinical and Cantoral Association of Albuquerque, said Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of Congregation Albert.

“There are times in our lives when we’re all the same and should be treated all the same, regardless of our status or position,” he said. “Death is one of those times, and one of the ways we express that is our caskets are all the same – plain and simple and as inexpensive as possible, so regardless of finances you or your family can afford one. The caskets these guys are making fit all our requirements.”

Available through French Funerals and Cremations, the caskets sell for $990, less than French’s most popular caskets that range in price from $1,500 to $4,000, said John Dyck, managing director of French’s location on Wyoming NE. They can also be purchased directly from Father’s Building Futures for $1,195.

“Quite a few people who are not Jewish have selected a kosher casket because they appreciate the high quality and simple style and want something green,” Dyck said, noting that the caskets have been certified “green” by the Green Burial Council.

“We’ve also had families who wanted an Old West kind of funeral. We have driven to ranches in eastern and northern New Mexico where we’d supply the kosher caskets for people being buried on their own land. It brings a lot of comfort to the families.”

The caskets are also in demand at La Puerta Natural Burial Ground, south of Belen, which is run by Donal Key and his wife Linda Canyon.

Among restrictions for burial there, the deceased cannot be embalmed and caskets must be biodegradable and placed directly in the ground and not inside concrete sub-ground vaults.

“My wife and I both retired from careers in health care and we found over the years that people really are under-resourced at the end of life and it’s difficult for them or their families to come up with the $6,000 to $10,000 or more cost of a funeral. We wanted to find a better way to do it, and one that is more respectful and environmentally sound,” he said.

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