The Life and Death of the Friendly Casket Company

February 17, 2016

Our chevrah kadisha had a long and established relationship with a local casket maker, who suddenly went out of business about two years ago. Until that time, our caskets had been of consistent quality and price; a dark blue flocked material covering pressboard with plastic nails and the cost was approximately $500. Suddenly, without a regular supplier, we turned to the market to look for a suitable replacement.

Our first series of caskets came from a small local upstart who were selling plain wooden Chinese manufactured cremation caskets for about $475. They were somewhat more decorative than our previous purchases, but we soon realized that cremation caskets aren’t necessarily designed to have several feet of dirt piled on top of them. There were a number of reports of caskets collapsing in the grave while shoveling was taking place. Further, if the meit was exceptionally heavy one could hear the bottom of the caskets cracking from the extra stress while in transit.

It was at this time I was approached by my chevrah to design and build a plain wooden casket to suit our needs. I researched the Internet for a number of different do-it-yourself plans, and called various friends in other communities for dimensions, materials, etc. of the caskets they were using.

Our first attempt used ¾” plywood which yielded a very heavy empty casket and this one still sits in our garage. I spent the next month in designing and implementng a number of changes, as requested by our chevrah; lighter weight, nicer wood, wooden instead of rope handles, a raised CNC cut Star of David . . . the list went on, but after five different prototypes we finally arrived at a design everyone was happy with, and I was pretty happy about meeting the price point of my cost of about $400.

Much of these savings were achieved by using 5/8” Chinese birch plywood and some very tricky joinery that would both carry a heavy load and not collapse under the weight of several tons of dirt. Each was hand built in a workshop that I had rented with a retired carpenter I was working with on some other projects.

Our night shomer chose the name of my informal company, the Friendly Casket Company, and things seemed to be going well. We had delivered about 50 caskets when one day I arrived for a Taharah and discovered a dozen navy blue caskets in the coffin room. To make a long story short, an employee from the bankrupt supplier had made arrangements with a coffin builder in China to construct a 40 foot container’s worth of caskets for us. His cost to us was $350 a casket which was the same cost as my raw materials. Shortly thereafter, the previous supplier of plain wooden cremation caskets brought his own container of caskets over and now sells his caskets for $350.

Our chevrah was good enough to pick up my remaining inventory at cost, but quite suddenly I was out of the casket business. I designed a good casket and would be happy to share plans and experiences with any chevrah considering making their own. Just be wary of Chinese competition.


Kerry Swartz is a member of the Community Chevra Kadisha in Vancouver and Victoria BC. He is a professionally trained photographer holding an MFA from Concordia University in Montreal. He is a student of the “>avod v’Nichum. Kerry is happily married with two teenagers who think his library is gross.







Taste of Gamliel registration is open. Join us for a 5 part webinar series with the theme The World To Come – Do You Have Your Ticket? The series will include one session each month from January to May, each on Sundays.  The next session will be February 21st at 8 pm EST/5 pm PST.  Free, with a suggested $36 donation to help us defray the expenses of presenting the series. NOT TOO LATE – You Can View ALL the sessions on recordings! For those registered, the sessions will be recorded and may be accessed afterwards (instructions will be provided following each session) so those who cannot watch live can still view the presentations.

View the program and speakers by clicking   

Register ” target=”_blank”>http://bit.ly/1PvJ5kw.





Be on the lookout for information about the 14th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, to be held in Lexington, MA June 5-7 2016. Register Gamliel Institute students (past and present) are also encouraged to plan to remain for an additional day following the conference for a live educational program. Information will be forthcoming about this event – look for it, and mark your calendar now!    





Please Tell Anyone Else Who May Be Interested!

Spring 2016:  

During the coming semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the online course. Chevrah Kadisha: Education, Organizing, & Training (EOT) [Course 3]. The prerequisite for this course is prior successful completion of Course 1, 2, 4, or 5. This course will run from May 3rd to July 19th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST/9-10:30 pm AST. (12 class sessions). There will be an online orientation session Monday May 2nd at 8-9:30 pm EST. Past Students, please note: We are using a new (to us) online Platform for the classes, so definitely plan on attending one of the orientation sessions if you were not a student in Winter 2016! 

For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.

Course 3 has a full academic curriculum that teaches principles of organizing, training, education, and working within a community. Even more than that, however, the focus of this course is as a practical, hands-on course that helps students bring Jewish practices and values to fruition. It is designed as both an academic course, and a practicum. Its central deliverable is the support and mentoring of students in conceiving and carrying out useful projects of their own related to the Chevrah Kadisha world, whether in their own community, congregation, or business, or on a larger scale. Thus, the course offers students a way to make a difference and have a meaningful and positive impact in the world—a “real-world” effect. The course includes material on principles of education and organizing, and projects can range from academic research and writing, to community organizing, to creative and artistic endeavors. Organizing efforts might include starting a new Bikkur Cholim/Caring committee, educating the community about the Chevrah Kadisha’s work, teaching about the running of the local Jewish mortuary or cemetery, helping the Chevrah Kadisha to expand its services, or producing materials for education or to share the beauty and meaning of this work. This course is a vehicle for those who wish to undertake a project, with guidance and support from the Gamliel Staff and other students, that will provide benefits and information to their own community and/or other communities. You can see examples of completed Student projects at Fall 2016:

Gamliel Institute Course 5, Chevrah Kadisha Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy (RPL) will be offered from September 6th, 2016 to November 22nd 2016. This course has no prerequisites. Please note it on your calendar, and plan to attend.



NOTE: Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization can request a 20% discount. There are also clergy and student discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding to take Gamliel Institute courses. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.


You can “>jewish-funerals.org/gamreg.


Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.





Donations are always needed and most welcome – online at   You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click __________________________________________________



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