Photo courtesy of Marcus Daly
Marcus Daly chooses wood for a casket inspired by Pope John Paul's. It takes him 25 hours to make one.
Photo courtesy of Marcus Daly
Marcus Daly chooses wood for a casket inspired by Pope John Paul's. It takes him 25 hours to make one.
VASHON ISLAND, Wash. — Like many millions of Catholics in 2005, Marcus Daly watched the funeral of Pope John Paul II on television. His heart came into his throat at the moment when the splendor of St. Peter's Basilica and hundreds of hierarchy loomed in the background, but a simple poor man's coffin sat in the foreground.

That was when Daly began a move from boat making to casket making.

"John Paul's casket told us to accept death as sad but also to accept the good truth that we come into this world naked and go out naked," says Daly, 45. "With big fancy caskets, we can diminish the real grandeur, which is a life lived and a life lost and a life moved on." John Paul will be canonized in April.

Daly now makes simple wooden caskets with scripture verses and the same simple Marian cross that marked the pope's. His small business is called "Marian Caskets."  
"Now I make a different kind of boat for people to move on," he says.  

Daly saw the "stark simplicity" of John Paul's casket as a moment of catechesis from the pope who meant so much to him.

Daly grew up near Philadelphia and as a boy attended Pope John Paul's 1979 Mass there. The altar made for the papal Mass was moved to his home parish. During his teenage years of a "dissipated faith life," he began searching and read the pope's theological autobiography, Crossing the Threshold of Hope.   

"The pope had a much more vivid idea of what it meant to be a human being than I did," Daly says, laughing a bit at his youthful self.   

In his 20s, Daly worked as a commercial fisherman. One off season, he traveled to the Middle Easy with a friend. Though not intent on religious sites, he stumbled across them. That includes the time in Jerusalem when a group of friars and tourists knelt down near him and prayed. Without knowing it, he was on the via dolorosa, the path Jesus took to his crucifixion. He followed the group and his life has never been the same.

"I realized this was true, this was real," he says.

He chose a simple life, making furniture and living with people who are poor and homeless. He joined a Catholic Worker-inspired community in Ontario for a time. He later married Kelly and lived in Seattle, but longed for a quieter place. He and his wife moved to Vashon Island to build boats and have also built up a family of six children. When reached last month, Daly was building a small casket because his wife had suffered a miscarriage and they planned to bury the unborn child.

Daly helps pay the bills by working as a landscaper and carpenter. It takes him about 25 hours to build a coffin, which he sometimes does late at night. When demand for caskets gets high, friends help out. Caskets, which cost between $1,450 and $2,150 delivered all over the country, free in the Seattle area. Daly donates a portion of proceeds toward the purchase of ultrasound machines for pregnancy care centers.

He plans to begin offering more personalized caskets, with verses chosen by buyers and carved into the coffin's handles. He thinks of it as the departed be held in prayer. He is also offering a casket with a Divine Mercy theme, a spirituality important to Blessed John Paul.  

"A big part of why I do what I do is that there is no better opportunity than a funeral to share our faith," Daly says. "Many people who would not otherwise go to a church do so out of respect. While there, we owe it to them to share the good news that Jesus Christ died so that we may live."

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