GRAND MARAIS (AP) -- The build-your-own-coffin class starts with instructor Mark Hansen describing the first one he built.
It was for Helmer Aakvik, a Lake Superior fisherman from Hovland, Minn. Back in 1982, Aakvik asked Hansen, a Grand Marais boat builder, to make a simple pine coffin for him.
Hansen rigged it with rope handles, carved a compass design on the lid and put a keel on the bottom, "so that when he was going through the heavens on the way to eternity, he would be on course."
"He didn't use it until 1985 -- '85 or '86," Hansen says. But people in the area liked the homey look so much that he has built seven others since then. "It's amazing the impact that a homemade casket has at a burial service."
Three years ago, Hansen decided to teach other people how to build their own coffins. He started a course at the North House Folk School, the Grand Marais program that teaches traditional skills and crafts ranging from building a canoe to making a mukluk.
The four-day coffin course costs $200 plus another $375 for materials. Cheap compared to the $2,000 to $3,000 on average for a casket bought at a funeral home. Three students signed up for Hansen's latest class, held in early September.
Shauna Hannan is a 31-year-old Lutheran pastor from Moorhead, Minn. She's using the experience to show her parishioners how they can make preparations for their own funerals, even if death isn't imminent.
"I've told a few people, and they think I have some terminal disease." she says. But "an accident can happen at any time. So the sooner you're ready, the better."
Lee Ganske of Rochester and Mike Wright of Wyoming, Minn., both 38, are here because their friend, Ed Weir, asked them to build him a coffin. Weir is dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).
"He said, "Don't carve a loon on it, because I don't want it to look like a cheap roadside souvenir,' " Ganske says.
"It's a very simple box that we're building. It's not complicated," Hansen, 48, explains as the class gets down to business. But there is room for personal touches.
Hansen's coffin has a cross carved into the lid and shelves set inside so that it can be used as a bookcase until "the big dirt nap," as he puts it.
With no blueprint to guide them, each coffin will be custom-fitted. The students take out tape measures and start measuring their height and shoulder widths.
Hansen shows them the wood they'll use. "This is the white pine that was blown down on the Gunflint trail during the big Fourth of July storm."
"The idea of (using) materials from Northern Minnesota is just completely in character with what he would want," Ganske says of Weir. "He appreciates things that are homemade."
Unlike most coffins bought from a funeral home, the coffins built here won't have rounded corners or a domed lid. It will be a box with straight edges, right angles and flat surfaces.
"I like it," Hannan says. "It doesn't soften the edge of death."
The workshop sits on the harbor at Grand Marais, and two other classes -- "Build a Windsor Chair by Hand and Eye" and "Explorations in Birch Bark" -- are being taught at the same time.
By late afternoon on the second day, both coffins have four sides and a bottom. They're starting to look like carefully built, sturdy packing crates, like something a museum would use to ship a statue.
"Last night, I was thinking about being claustrophobic," Hannan says. But when she gets in her coffin and tries it on for size, she declares, "This is cozy." A friend snaps a picture.
All of the students are staying in tents in the lakeshore city campground next to the North House school.
"I'm pretty sure our friend asked us to do this because he knew this would be a fun weekend, that we'd have a good time," Ganske says.
But Ganske admits he's nervous. Weir and his wife will be stopping by the next day to see how they're doing.
Ganske worries they'll just see a simple wood box and say, "That's it?"
On the third day, the students put an apron on the coffins, a trim piece along the bottom edge of the sides. They cut out the boards for the lids and trim them with black ash edges. Details that make them look like more than just wooden containers.
In the afternoon, Ed Weir and his wife, JoAnn, stop by.
"I was thinking I would do (the class) myself when I was diagnosed," the St. Cloud man says from his wheelchair. "But my hands were affected so soon."
Hansen asks if Weir would like to see the progress Wright and Ganske are making.
"No, I don't think I do. I'll let them finish their work," he says.
But JoAnn Weir takes a look.
"This means so much to Ed," she says. "But it does look so small."
"Both Mike and I have been in it to test it," Ganske says.
"I think it's beautiful," she declares. "I think Ed made the right choice. This is so Ed. He's such a simple guy."
Hannan makes shelves for her coffin. She's planning to store photo albums and scrapbooks inside, maybe also her will, other important papers and her journals.
"When they replace the books with my body, they'll look through the photo albums and they'll reminisce," she says.
"It can be enjoyable, building your coffin," she says. "It doesn't seem morbid."
The process of building it, working the wood, smelling the resin, getting sawdust in your hair seems to demystify the coffin. It turns what sometimes seems foreign, scary and expensive into something familiar, even friendly.
On the last day, the coffin makers have the workshop to themselves.
Hannan is working on the handles, and Hansen suggests that she chamfer the edges with a sharp knife. No one will mistake this coffin for something that came off an assembly line.
"I'm glad I'm not going to die twice," she says. "This is a lot of work."
Details remain, like putting on hinges and making a handle in the shape of a cross for the door.
For the past four days, the students have been working the wood with hard, sharp, strong tools: saws, drills, chisels, sanders, hammers, scrapers, planes and clamps. The last step is the softest, brushing on a coat of tung oil finish and rubbing the wood with a soft cotton cloth.
Hansen pulls out a case of warm Stroh's, and everyone takes a can of beer.
"It's kind of a christening, I guess," Ganske says.
Hannan lies down in her coffin one last time. "But no closing it on me," she warns. "No tricks."
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