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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Coffins

Air Date: Week of

Specially for Halloween, Steve Curwood talks with builder Will Maertens (MYRHH-tins) of Redding, California who builds biodegradable coffins and coffin kits out of rice straw pressed into plywood. Maertens' says his do-it-yourself CasKits are also less expensive to build and own than other coffins currently on the market.


CURWOOD: For the person who tries to live every moment in harmony with the Earth, there's a way to assure that you can die that way, too. Green coffins. Will Maertens, a builder in Redding, California, saw the abundant rice straw in the Sacramento Valley being burned off, sending up clouds of black soot. He decided to make the rice straw into plywood and then use the plywood to make coffins. Mr. Maertens' alternative casket is meant to go easy on the Earth, or perhaps we should say into the Earth. Rice straw is a renewable resources and even cremation requires more energy than the manufacture of his coffins. They're relatively cheap, $375, and they can be put together at home. Mr. Maertens, thanks for joining us today.

MAERTENS: Hi, how are you today?

CURWOOD: Well, good enough not to need your product today. But you know, you have a great name for this thing. You call it the CasKit. Let's say I want to build one of these. Does it come with instructions?

MAERTENS: Yes sir. It comes with instructions. It's pretty simple. We would supply it in different ways. Some people might wish to glue the boards together. We suggest they use recycled wood pegs that can come out of palettes. But the neat thing, the handles and the hinges that are on the coffin can be removed after the funeral, and so the coffin is not buried with anything in it that won't biodegrade.

CURWOOD: How quickly do these things break down?

MAERTENS: Well, it's really according to how much moisture there is. If you're in a dry climate, like over in the high desert, that coffin would last forever. But if water gets into the ground and gets onto the straw, then it may biodegrade in a year.

CURWOOD: Well, now, how about the person inside?

MAERTENS: Well, they're going to start decomposing immediately. And then as that process goes, the 2 of them sort of degrade together.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how do you ever succeed in a business like this, and you know, you get one customer, that's it, you get them just once?

MAERTENS: Well, the way you look at it business-wise is 20,000 people expire per day approximately in the United States. So we do have a customer base to go from. People that don't wish to be cremated want to use these units because they can decorate it themselves and everybody can be involved with it. And they don't really take any more with them than they have to.

CURWOOD: How about yourself? What are the arrangements you've made for yourself?

MAERTENS: Well, I have (laughs) -- it's funny you would ask. I have a coffin in my garage, and that's mine, and I use it for demonstrations and something. It's quite interesting to get in it. It fits me perfectly. And you close the lid and it's awfully quiet in there.

CURWOOD: Are you married, Will?

MAERTENS: Yes, I am.

CURWOOD: What did your wife say when you came home and said, "Honey, you know what? I think we can make money in coffins. Biodegradable coffins."

MAERTENS: She was very into it, for the reason that they burn rice straw here and pollute our air, and we're always trying to find other uses for it. And when we did that, we did that, it was really great. My biggest thing is to keep the kids from playing in it.

CURWOOD: (laughs) What did they think of the coffin?

MAERTENS: Well, it's just a box that they put people in when they die. Like I say, it's in the garage, and they played around as we were trying to photograph it. But daddy's a designer, not a mortician.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us today. Will Maertens runs BioFab in Redding, California.

MAERTENS: Thank you for having me so much.



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