Written by Shawndra Russell | Photos by Linda D. Cluxton
Not everyone is built to take on a profession that revolves around death.
Funeral home directors, headstone carvers, casket makers… some of these owners inherit the family business, others have more personal reasons. Abraham Cluxton, founder Cluxton Caskets in Asheville, a company that began with his love of woodworking.
It came to fruition when he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy 7 years ago. In his new found religion, Abraham discovered frank acceptance of death and immortality as steering forces in daily life instead of the uncomfortable avoidance he sees prevalent in our society. Abraham says, “The concept of death in a traditional view is like sleep because we don’t want to go there. It’s a kind of obsession with immortality, trying to get the physical body to last forever, but you’re just pumping the ground with embalming preservatives.”
Abraham’s upbringing did not lead him down this path directly. His father, Erich Cluxton, has served as a headmaster at several college preparatory schools, including Asheville Country Day School. He retired in 2014 from Christ School in Asheville, an Episcopal school for boys, after 45 years in education. His mom, Linda Cluxton, is a professional photographer and former vintage motorcycle racer. His father showed Abraham the skills of carpentry at an early age in his own wood shop. He says, “I had a hatchet and a knife by the time I was five. I also attempted to build a boat that same year. It sank!” Abraham says with a laugh.
Today, his workshop is filled with wooden spoons, bowls, jewelry boxes, and other small items that don’t make him much money, but provide plenty of pleasure in their construction. He says he might be a “compulsive whittler,” and family members know that for Christmas, they will likely receive wooden spoons—“My mom has jars stuffed full of them.” He also sells walking sticks, toolboxes, benches, urns, plus bows and arrows. In fact, although the name Cluxton Caskets likely evokes images of coffins, the word casket actually refers to any ornamental box that holds valuable objects. Perhaps the typical word association further emphasizes that death is a frightening concept in our world.
While he gives the majority of credit to his father for encouraging him to have a career path, he notes two other early heroes: Davy Crockett and Robin Hood. He describes himself as a “wild creature” growing up, not surprising since he was a headmaster’s child most of his youth. By age 12, he was “set on becoming a skydiving priest,” he says with another burst of laughter, yet it wouldn’t be surprising if that actually happened down the road. He has an unbridled energy despite the busyness of his life and seems willing to tackle just about anything.
Abraham’s interest in woodworking enticed him to accept a forestry internship from a friend’s father in the summers during high school, and this work earned him nearly a full scholarship to North Carolina State University for forestry. He deferred starting his curriculum for a year—perhaps an early indication that this was not the path for him—and spent that time traveling all over America seeking his purpose. “I took a year off and started out on a serious quest to find some truth in this crazy world, in and around different religions. I went to Hawaii and heard the Dalai Lama speak, lived on an Ojibwa reservation out west, and came back burnt to a crisp with tons of energy I didn’t know what to do with.”
Still uncertain if forestry was for him, he started school anyway and stayed for only one term, “having trouble staying still in my seat the whole semester.” During that time, he met his now-wife at, appropriately, a mountain memorial gathering for a mutual friend. “My heart leapt when I met her, and everything I’d been searching for fell into place,” he says of Rosaura, with whom he has four children: Evalyn, 7; Lydia, 5; John, 3; and Joseph, 16 months.
One year later to the day, they were married and began planning their futures, which included Abraham converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, his wife’s lifelong religion. He was re-baptized and given the new name of Abraham, which he added to his birth name Reed. “In my early days, I had ‘convertitis’. I was extremely fervent,” he says matter-of-factly. While he still wears his religion on his sleeve, he has since opted to lead more by example. “You carry your cross and live the gospel,” he says. They attend St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Fletcher.
His family urged him to finish school, but his dad had always taught him to make life about three things, in this order: God, family, and work. “I was like, ‘Wait, college wasn’t on your list!’” His choice not to finish and the conversion was difficult for his family, but they remained close. “My parents always talk about unconditional love,” he says.
He and his wife, Rosaura, have lived on her family’s 3-acre homestead ever since, and in the early days, Abraham was able to work odd carpentry jobs and installed solar hot water systems in the winters. “But when kid #2, or maybe it was #3, came, I needed a full-time job,” he explains. One of his connections pointed him to a position at CharGrow making BioChar. For nearly 3 years he worked long days in the elements using a high-heat machine to make the organic soil builder. “I was grateful for the job, but I was exhausted all the time. So, I began praying again for something that would allow me to have the energy to come home and take care of my family and work in my workshop.”
Now, Abraham spends his days working at Smokey Mountain Lumber helping to run the moulding mill and he snags pockets of time to work in his home shop when he can. Besides paying the bills, the job taught Abraham more about the precision of his craft since they work with increments in the thousandths to produce crown moldings and interior trim. “Before working here, I’d only worked in 1/16,” he says with his ever-present chuckle. It was the same lumberyard he’d previously ordered from until they offered him a job in early 2015. Considering that he and his wife homeschool their four small children all under the age of seven —plus raising chickens, growing produce, and owning dogs—it’s no small feat that Abraham has a shop full of works-in-progress in addition to his 9-to-5 day job.
As part of their homeschooling, Abraham often shows his children the way things work in his workshop; his 3-year-old swings a hammer, and small projects by his kids litter the space. “I also teach them how to build fires, chop wood, and use tools. We go on nature walks and learn about plants, that sort of thing.” But he does plan to require that they all work in the business—as future “Cluxton Casketeers,” —when they’re older if the business expands. “I’d like to have something to pass down to them, if they so choose, and to give them their first employment,” he says. “It was great that my buddy’s dad was able to do that for his sons and his sons’ friends like me. Plus, I’m not going to push college on them.” Rosaura, with her master’s degree from Appalachian State University might, however.
Cluxton Caskets started from a small nest egg they received from Rosaura grandmother. “We used it to set up our DBA, for tools, business cards, and to print brochures. We’ve since replenished it many times over.” He’s confident that if he keeps it small, he can be profitable enough to support his family fully one day. He has even had calls from out-of-state to ship caskets; “But, I mean, why would I? It’s cost-prohibitive to the customer, and it’s no longer a locally-made product. It’s just not the way we want to do things.” He’s also committed to maintaining personal connections with his customers. Recently, he built a coffin for a father of seven and also built seven crosses for each of the children out of the same wood. “We can meet, I can pray for them, they can pray for me, and we can build this relationship. It’s a wonderful thing.”
He does have a business plan, but it’s more fluid than time sensitive. “I know the steps that need to happen to grow my business, but a lot depends on what’s going on with the family,” he says with a shrug. “So, when a step can happen, we move forward.” The biggest hindrance right now is space, but he sees it as a blessing. “I would love to jump in full-time and just have order after order, but I need to be patient, and I still have a lot to learn about the niche market.”
He’s also opted to make caskets for anyone, though he started with members of the Eastern Orthodoxy community. Neither on his website nor on his Facebook page is his religion stated, even though his beliefs influenced his style of handmade, cost-effective caskets. Traditional Eastern Orthodoxy caskets are six-sided without hinges, but Abraham finds that many customers want a simple four-sided box. Even with these simple coffins, he uses minimal metal fasteners, a growing trend in the green funeral industry. “It’s the future,” he says flatly.
But true to his humble ways, Abraham does not push the green aspect of his coffins, at least, not yet. “That’s an angle I can work as much as I want, but I just try to keep everything I do as natural as possible. I don’t push it because I think it’s what we should be doing anyway. Pine decomposes at the same rate as the human body, so it just makes sense.” However, Abraham has taken small steps to align himself with green burials by providing a Green Burials Resources section on his website. He recommends Groce Funeral Home, one of the businesses that keeps a Cluxton casket in stock. They, too, showcase a green section on their website. Other listed resources include the book A Christian Ending and several websites, such as Green Burial Council.org, Crossings.net, and Final Passages.org — each with a sustainable burial focus.
The green burial industry is certainly on the rise as interest in sustainability permeates many markets. Today, according to WealthMangment.com, about 50% of people still opt for a standard burial, or one that involves embalming and metal caskets, while another third chose cremation, which creates a lot of emissions. Together, this means that green burials can expand and grow into 83% of the market share. As Jena Levin for WealthManagement.com wrote in May 2015: “Along with the rise of other eco-friendly and natural trends like urban farming, home birthing, locally-sourced produce and producing hormone and antibiotic-free meat, driving hybrid and electric cars, deriving energy from the sun and wind, etc., an increasing number of Americans are seeking green options for what to do with their bodies when they die.”
Yet, people who seem like the perfect target market for green funerals may cringe when faced with making decisions about their own death. For example, Abraham and his family used to sell produce and flowers at a farmer’s market, and he thought, “‘Shoot, why not bring a coffin?’ I was just naïve about the whole industry. People seemed nice about it, asking questions and reading the pamphlets I brought about green funerals and pre-planning.” However, the next day, he received a phone call from the organizer who said, “‘Don’t bring that coffin back!’ You could tell she’d received several earfuls, mentioning that people come here to think about love and life and joy, and flowers and vegetables; they don’t want to be confronted with mortality. That’s why I’ve kept things more low-key since then, mostly word of mouth and relationships.”
In green cemeteries, graveyards are typically unmarked with headstones; instead, natural landmarks and GPS devices lead to grassy, natural areas that add uninterrupted green space to a community. In Asheville, Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Green Hills Cemetery are both considered hybrids since they offer sections exclusively for green burials. The latter says, “Green burial is becoming more popular every day, and we feel it is important to provide a natural burial option.” The Green Burial Council, the industry’s environmental certification organization, only recognizes one other North Carolina cemetery, the all-natural Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest. Green Burial Council, only a decade old, is a nonprofit that has helped shepherd in the ‘death care’ market, encouraging people to take control of their burials by planning early. Abraham agrees. “I had a prospect once say, ‘Uncle Jimmy would love this, but we’re just going to go traditional’ because they thought it was too different, too macabre. That’s why I encourage people to plan their own.”
Besides being better for the environment, green burials are also more cost-effective for both the families and the cemetery. “The average North American traditional funeral costs between $7,000 and $10,000,” according to Funeral-Tips, but families can save with green options. Cluxton caskets start at $900 compared to the traditional casket that starts at $2,300. Groce Funeral Home lists a green burial plot at $900. Interment fees stay the same, about $800, but saving the expenses of embalming, a headstone, and a burial container can bring the total cost down by thousands.
Currently, Abraham averages 6-8 coffins per year, and he hopes to double that production in the future as the movement gains popularity. He is also adding cabinetry to his offerings so the business can become a full-time endeavor. Right now, the plan is for a much larger workshop than his current 20’x14’ space.
If any geographical destination could embrace green burials, Asheville would seem like a frontrunner. In fact, the Green Burial Council claims that just 26 states currently have green cemeteries, with about double that number in total green cemeteries available. New York has the most with eight, and just two of those are categorized as hybrid cemeteries. In fact, owning a green cemetery is part of Abraham’s future goals. “I’d love to buy a plot of land for that. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
For fun, Abraham and his family like to swim, hike, and fish. “Family time outside is important to us. Our life centers around our home, our kids. After I converted, my focus changed. I’ll sip a beer, but we rarely go downtown. We do try to get to the beach once a year,” he says.
Abraham’s passion for his religion, his family, and his work are inspiring, but perhaps the true value of hearing his story is that it inspires us to think about our own mortality. As Treehugger.com said in a 2014 piece about green funerals, “If you gotta go, why not go green?”
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