Casket company promises sustainability

Gloria Hafemeister
Jonas and Julie Zahn are in the tree planting business and they finance it by making wood caskets and utilizing all natural, nontoxic finishes and furnishings. Pictured is a casket with the IH implement design featured.

Beaver Dam — “We’re a tree planting business that happens to build caskets,” said Jonas Zahn, who, with his wife Julie, owns Northwoods Casket Company.

Jonas grew up on a dairy farm and had a 20-year career in the corporate world, but he and Julie started this business as a way to satisfy his desire to provide something that will benefit generations to come.

“We need to make a profit in this business in order to survive, but making money is not our goal,” he said.  “Our goal is to plant 10 million trees for the next generation and the generation after that. We’re financing that goal with profits from our casket business.”

In following through on his goal to be environmentally sustainable, Jonas said that for every casket sold he will plant 100 trees to offset the carbon footprint caused by transportation. Partnering with Wisconsin’s urban forestry program, his company has planted well over 30,000 trees around the state.

The trees he plants are in accordance with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Urban Forestry initiative.

An urban forest, he explains, is all the trees in and around a community. Essentially, it’s the plant life found in the locations where the majority of Wisconsin’s population lives, works and makes its carbon footprint.

Northwoods isn’t seeding row upon row of plantation pines. Instead, it is working to replenish the specific native tree species the state DNR has identified as needed to create a diverse tree population. Diversified trees mean less of a chance that large numbers of trees will be lost from disease or pests.

The 100 tree seedlings he plants for each casket sold more than offset the company’s carbon footprint in just one year. More than that, they continue to give for many years to come, he pointed out.

Local materials and labor

Northwoods Casket is also unique in another way.  Jonas sources all natural materials for the caskets and utilizes local, skilled labor. The caskets are not mass produced or shipped in from another country.

The Jonass are proud of the fact that about 10 Wisconsin people get a paycheck for their contribution to the construction of each casket.  Each one of those crafts persons takes a personal interest in making it special.

Mass-produced caskets are made from a variety of materials, most which are not biodegradable, according to Jonas.

Of the caskets sold for burial, at least 85 percent of them are stamped steel. Solid wood and particle board coffins with hardwood veneers comprise 10-15 percent of the sales. Those from Northwoods Casket are solid wood.

“When we do any of our caskets, before we send them out the door, we personally inspect them. We don’t let anything go unless it is something that we’d be willing to use for our own loved one,” Jonas said. “That’s what sets us apart from the mass-produced casket companies.

“I’m doing this to prove that we can build a sustainable business, one that isn’t focused on profits but focused on creating good work for good people here in Wisconsin and doing something right by the environment. We found we can do that and still make money.”

Retired dairy farmer Jim Zahn works for his son at Northwoods Casket Company.  Earlier this year, he explained to a group of 4-Hers on an agricultural tour how the caskets are environmentally friendly and made with Wisconsin-grown wood.

12 years in business

Jonas made his first casket for his grandpa, who died just before Christmas in 2004.  He and other family members gathered in his grandparents’ farm house to talk about funeral plans but had trouble deciding what Grandpa would want.

He pointed out that Grandpa was a big John Wayne and Clint Eastwood fan, and he always wanted to be a cowboy.

“I remembered the coffin from the movie ‘Unforgiven’ that was known as the toe pincher," he said. "I offered to build one like it for Grandpa."

His grandma agreed it would be what her husband wanted, and family members offered to help.

Together, family members made a Transylvanian coffin design. The process brought the family closer together and provided an outlet for their grieving.

The whole thing, however, got Jonas thinking about modern caskets. He thought about how environmentally unfriendly modern caskets are; about how most of them are made in China and other countries; and about the cost.

“It just didn’t make sense to me to bury grandma or grandpa in a steel box that probably cost more than they ever spent in their lifetime on a bedroom set,” he said.

Making that first casket sparked Jonas's interest in the natural burial movement, and he started making some prototypes of caskets that were esthetically pleasing but also practical.

Jonas began making environmentally friendly caskets in the carriage house behind their home.  As interest grew and he began selling quite a few of them through funeral homes around the state, he began storing them in his huge home.

“We had caskets all over our house," Julie said. "Our children were little, and they had caskets all around them.”

“We never let them take a nap in any of them, though," the couple joked.

As their business grew, they eventually bought a former funeral home. They now have a show room and plenty of space for assembling, painting and completing caskets for the business that has grown considerably.

Julie, a photographer by profession, does all of the company’s catalogs that are sent out to funeral homes all around the country.

Jonas continues assisting with IT work for companies, and he guides the casket business with the help of his wife and his dad, Jim, a retired dairy farmer.

He hires 10 or 12 individual craftspersons to build the basic caskets according to his specifications and using only Wisconsin wood. The roughed-in casket then comes into the company shop for painting and completion.

Their location in the former funeral home is ideal because they make use of the climate-controlled former cremation room in the basement for painting. It has adequate ventilation and is sealed off so there is no dust in the air to land on the drying paint.

A seamstress on staff designs and sews the cotton liners and accessories that make each casket unique. She chooses patterns to suit a variety of interests, including farming, nautical, hunting and more.  Jonas’s favorite is the IH design for his favorite International Harvestore brand equipment that he used on his parents’ and grandparents’ farms.

While the basic caskets are in stock, when they get an order, they can customize it to the desires of the customer.

The mural at Northwoods Casket illustrates the Zahn's commitment to plant 100 trees for each casket sold with a goal of planting 10 million trees.

Growing business

Northwoods Casket has grown considerably over the years due to an increased interest in sustainability and environmentally-friendly products.

In addition, more people are preplanning their funerals.

"When people sit down and really think about what they want for their own funeral, they are more sensible about their choices, and they don’t make decisions based on emotion,” Jonas said. “Traditionally, a casket was a simple pine box built by the local furniture store. What we think about in a casket now didn’t really exist 75-100 years ago.”

They offer a variety of styles and colors, all made from Wisconsin wood and other materials. Finishes and paint are all natural, including real milk paint and natural tung oil.

From its meager beginnings, Northwoods now offers 30 different products that are actively represented in a third of Wisconsin’s 600 funeral homes, as well throughout the country.