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Working to Build From the Ground Up

November 11, 2010 By:
Rachel Vigoda, JE Feature
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A homemade casket created from a fallen tree by an area carpenter

Carpenter David Campbell originally wanted to name his new business "From Sperm to Worm." But decorum prevailed.

Still, the rejected name, eventually replaced with "The WoodsMyth" (www.thewoodsmyth.com), does do a good job summing up the man's calling: He creates unusual wood items for every step in the life cycle, from cradles to his most popular item, caskets -- the latter, and what truly set him on his path, inspired by a death in the family.

Campbell, who lives in Elkins Park, also fashions tables, hope chests, chupahs, seder plates, menorahs, yads, cremation urns and anything else a client can come up with, operating out of his home, with a studio for the machinery and equipment, a room to dry the wood and a shed to store it.

"When I open a tree, I get a sense of what it's supposed to be," says Campbell. "I let the shape or grain pattern design the piece, and I just trust that it's going to come out OK."

In 1977, at age 24, Campbell was living in Israel after a stint in Greece. Originally from Connecticut, he had traveled to Israel for a week's vacation and decided to stay.

He met his wife, Renie, who's from Mount Airy, on a kibbutz. His in-laws, the Brockmons, soon made aliyah, too, setting up home in Haifa.

Campbell's father-in-law, Bill Brockman, was an antiques dealer with a collection of old tools, and one day, Campbell decided to make use of them. "As soon as I put a plane to a piece of wood, I was sold," he says.

A few years later, the Campbells moved back to the states (the Brockmons stayed in Israel until 1997). Campbell, worried that his profession could not support a wife and growing family -- they have three sons -- gave up woodworking, and spent the next 30 years building a construction business and teaching construction at a vocational school.

Two years ago, Bill Brockman, at age 94, became sick, and it was clear he was going to die. Without telling anyone, Campbell started building his father-in-law a wooden casket. "I didn't want them to think it was strange or morbid. And it wasn't -- it was the most loving experience I ever had," he says. "The entire time I worked on the wood I was thinking about him and appreciating all the time we had together. I felt like I was protecting him."

Brockman died the same day Campbell finished the casket.

A funeral home can't refuse a casket bought or made elsewhere or charge a handling fee, according to the Federal Trade Commission's "Funeral Rule," though that's not widely known.

"Death is such an overwhelming kind of thing; people feel like they have no control. You just do what the funeral home tells you to do," says Campbell. "I'm not knocking funeral homes -- they provide a wonderful service. But they do have a monopoly."

The idea is to offer a more personal and creative option, not undercut the funeral homes.

He points out that, as far as prices are concerned, he tries to stick to a client's budget. (The price range starts at about $1,200, and can go up to around $3,500.)

When Campbell decided he wanted to give others the sense of control and serenity he felt designing his father-in-law's casket, "The WoodsMyth" business was born. Earlier this year, he gave up teaching, and at age 56, turned to woodworking full-time.

A traditional Jewish pine box, with holes drilled in the bottom to hasten the body's return to the earth, takes Campbell no more than two days to build. But his preferred process is to get to know someone who's dying, or his or her family, or both, and work with them to create the perfect casket. It's more personal and can impart a sense of closure, he explains.

Michelle Wallace contacted Campbell when she needed a casket for her mom, Jeanne, who lived in Ambler and died this past Halloween. "We talked about what my mom wanted, and then he wanted to talk to me about my mom, so he could think about her when he built the casket. It touched my heart," Wallace says.

"He was so empathetic and accommodating, and it really gave me a lot of peace. I'm not Jewish, but I know what a mensch is -- and he is totally a mensch."

When Wallace visited Campbell's workshop, she put her handprint inside the casket and threw in a bag of chocolate chips, her mother's favorite.

For now, Campbell's's happy primarily using "recycled" wood from trees that fell on their own, or are dying and need to be cut down. He dries the wood himself, careful to avoid chemicals or toxic materials, to "keep the footprint smaller," and because toxins can seep into the ground.

""Every time I open up a tree," says the cerpenter, "it's like opening an oyster with a pearl in it. You never know until you cut it open how beautiful it is inside." 

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