WEST DUMMERSTON — A half mile off Route 30, past the Stickney Ledges and along a dirt road called Bear Hill, a 7-foot bundle of hand-picked Ohio willow rests at the bottom of a chatty brook. After it soaks for a week, Mary Fraser will remove the willow, wrap it in a wool blanket, then for two days she’ll let it “mellow.” At this point, the rods will be supple enough for Mary to begin weaving your coffin.
If you commission your coffin from Mary, know there are all types of willow to choose from. Varieties include: “Eugene,” (sort of a brown green) “Harrison B” (on the reddish side) “Frank” (Mary is in love with Frank), “Polish Purple” (her least favorite), “Green Dicks” (she admits, a kinda weird name), “Dicky Meadows” (yes, it’s a theme), Natural Red, and Lambertina.
Inside her studio on Bear Hill Road, little cuttings of Harrison B litter the floor. A bundle of Eugene is swaddled like a newborn in the corner. Baskets of all shapes and sizes are stacked in towers. Four woven coffins stand against the wall. Another one sits agape on the floor, waiting for a lid of Lambertina to be born.
Mary Fraser was born in Quebec, grew up in Deerfield, Mass., and has been in the Brattleboro area for roughly four years. Even though she’s almost 28, she looks about 17. She has ruddy cheeks, a quaff of rebellious brown hair, and a gentle yet no-nonsense way of talking about death.
“We have a very death-phobic society. People don’t want to think about it or make plans, let alone realize they can be in charge of the entire process and have family and community be connected.”
Her website, fraserbaskets.com, is also matter-of-fact. Along with a plethora of conventional woven baskets for sale, her list of funeral wares pulls no punches: Adult coffins, infant coffins, child coffins, burial trays, pet coffins available on request.
Today Mary is working on a casket made with orange and plum willow. It’s an “advance” order — her favorite kind — for a lady up in Maine. The lady is not terminally ill. In fact, she’s perfectly well, but recently she called up and gave Mary her measurements. It appears there are perks to ordering your willow coffin in advance: 1) When the big day comes, you’ll leave your loved ones with one less difficult decision to make. 2) While you wait for the inevitable, Mary’s caskets make excellent linen storage and double nicely as a coffee table.
Mary got into the coffin biz at 20 years old. She was bumming around southern Wales with her fiddle when she heard about “a friend of a friend who had been buried in a basket.”
Already a seasoned basket weaver, she was intrigued. A month later, she headed up to Rafford, a Scottish village that sits beneath the west pointing finger of Moray Firth, an inlet fed by the North Sea. She’d heard about this place called Marcassie Farm where casket weaving was all the rage. When she walked into the studio at the farm, she felt awed by the small city of woven coffins. She knew it was something she had to be a part of. For three months she apprenticed at the farm before returning to the States.
At first it was hard to find materials here. The average willow vendor doesn’t sell rods long enough for adult caskets — about 7 feet. Mary just planted 600 willow cuttings on a plot in Andover, Mass., but as any casket weaver worth her twining knows, to propagate a growth of solid rods starts with three years of coppicing. For now, she orders her product from a five-acre willow farm in Ohio.
Mary was the first, she says, of only two professional casket weavers in North America. Rather than ship her caskets all over the country, she hopes more weavers will follow suit, cultivating what she calls “traditional North American funeral practices,” within their own communities. Mary is also a supporter of Green Burial, a movement that is similarly concerned with honoring burial traditions, but focused largely on reducing the carbon footprint and environmental impacts of conventional funeral practices.
Each year thousands of gallons of embalming fluid leach carcinogens like formaldehyde into the soil by way of dead bodies. Tropical woods imported for caskets are problematic both in the logging practices but also in their transportation. Lacquers, stains, and varnishes used to treat the wood as well as the cement vault that typically entombs a casket release more toxins into the ground.
But, if you buy your coffin from Mary Fraser, rest easy you’ll be making a socially responsible purchase. Each casket is lined with unbleached cotton muslin. The willow is never treated with chemicals and is fully compostable, which means it won’t bleed toxins into the soil, nor will it release harmful gasses should you choose an in-casket cremation. Plus, an established willow plant takes just one year to grow, making it a great renewable material. Ideal for a green burial.
Over the past few years, Green Burial has garnered more popularity — especially in Vermont, which is the first state to change its burial-depth laws. The proverbial 6 feet under (technically in Vermont, 5 feet) has been changed to three-and-a-half. Turns out a shallow grave has more oxygen, microbes, and wriggly things that help make decomposition fast and efficient. In Williamsville, the Higher Ground Conservation Cemetery is set to open sometime this winter and will be the state’s first all green (as opposed to hybrid) cemetery, and the only cemetery in the Northeast built on conservation land. This means there is no imported soil, no pesticides used in ground maintenance, and everything that goes three-and-half-feet under must be compostable.
When it comes to “traditional North American funeral practices,” Mary says, they basically harken to the days when families had more autonomy to take care of their dead: Things like washing and dressing the body, and holding vigil beside the body at home.
In most states, a body must be buried within four to five days. Many people don’t know it is still legal for a family to keep the body home. You’ll need a permit to transport a dead body, but it’s easy to get: You’ll need a preliminary report of death, and (in Vermont) a whopping five dollars. You can cross state lines, though another transport permit may be required there. You can wash the body at home and use pretty much any container for burial or cremation you please.
The act of washing and sitting with the body of a loved one, Mary thinks, “helps process our grief. When we hand the body over to the funeral home, this whole process of sterilization happens. They get embalmed; blood drained, organs popped, fluids replaced with formaldehyde and various other chemicals, stitched up, dressed up, presented. The family, for the most part, is not connected to any of that.”
“Basically,” she says “the funeral industry creates the idea that they are the ones in charge of our death processes and practices. And it’s been effective.”
You will not find a shopping cart icon on any page of fraserbaskets.com. If you want to buy a casket or urn from Mary, you’ll have to email her personally, or call. She prefers you send a picture of the person for whom she is weaving the coffin. That way she will keep them in mind while she works. She sees “each weaving rod as representing a story in that person’s life...” and thinks people feel that energy in her work. It’s more personal, connected: “There is something about a woven product. It’s more interactive.”
The average funeral in Vermont costs around $7,000 to $9,000. Depending on what funeral home you go with, burial prices are all over the map and difficult to pin down as many funeral homes are reluctant to offer an itemized list of their products and services in advance — even though the Federal Trade Commision requires it.
In Vermont, If you want to be buried in a simple pine box, a funeral home will charge a ballpark $400-$900. Casket prices go up drastically from there, capping off at around 40 grand. This does not include a basic funeral director’s fee ($1,000-$3,500), embalming ($500- $700), “Dressing and Casketing’’ the remains ($200), use of facilities and staff equipment ($1,200), use of automotive equipment ($125-$350), transfer of remains to funeral home ($300-$600 plus gas), and my personal favorite, a hairdresser charge ($50). Also, that cement vault your coffin will sit inside: you’re looking at anywhere from $1,000-$5,000. Interesting note on vaults: They are not sealed. Their sole purpose is to ensure the cemetery soil settles evenly. It makes the grass easier to mow and prevents unsightly bumps. With the exception of some Jewish cemeteries, a vast amount of conventional cemeteries require vaults.
It takes Mary 30-35 hours to weave an adult coffin. They are available at a sliding scale: $2,400-$3,500. Obviously, this gets cheaper the smaller the coffin gets.
On smaller coffins: It is hard not to stare at two jarringly small caskets propped against the back wall of Mary’s studio. One of them stands a little over four feet, about the right size for a 10-year-old, she says. The other one is even smaller.
Last year she got a desperate call requesting a casket for a six-month-old infant, something she could not make in the short window of time it was needed. “They buried a baby in one of my baskets. It was a beautiful basket, but ever since then I keep a stock of children’s coffins.”
Because nobody orders that kind of thing in advance.
Except for once.
A while back a lady commissioned Mary to make a coffin for her still-living 10-year-old daughter.
“They weren’t sure when she was going to die, but she had terminal cancer.”
When she delivered the coffin to the woman’s house, she was invited in. The two had tea, and Mary listened to stories about the woman’s daughter. Ten months later the child died. Because of the pandemic the memorial was postponed till the following spring. Mary was invited. There was dancing and a maypole and Mary just playing her fiddle.
On fraserbaskets.com’s homepage there is a link to the Green Burial Council website. The Council helps connect folks all over the country with information and access to sustainable and traditional funeral practices. In a photo on the website’s welcome page, a rustic bench rests under a live oak. A meadow of tall grass stretches towards a blurry forest in the distance. Imposed on the photo is a quote from John Muir, the early 20th century Scottish-American Naturalist and author:
“Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life ... and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”
Nice sentiment. But for those who find the prospect of sipping coffee over our own coffin morbid, for those who get queasy at the thought of dead bodies — let alone washing them — for those who cannot stop staring at tiny coffins because, well, it just seems like the saddest and most terrible thing ever ... for those people, death is not a stingless thing.
Unfortunately, there are industries that capitalize on just that.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Business of Death in Vermont: The Cremation Cartel