October 25, 2021

Crafting a final legacy

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

John Plunkett of Virgil talks about wanting to build his own urn for his remains, so he could leave a piece of himself behind. He is seen at his home Oct. 27.

John Plunkett said the wooden urns he makes are like little cabinets.

“It’s just what you’d do to build a kitchen cupboard,” he said, showing a cross section of a model in his outdoor shop. “It’s cabinetry.”

“You know how they say, ‘You can’t take it with you? I want to prove them wrong. I want to build it to take it with me.”

The retired Virgil man started researching urns and burial plots, wanting to take care of his end of life details, so his family wouldn’t have to do it. Grave plots, stone markers and just opening up a grave can get expensive.

“We thought we would make it easier, to buy a plot, put a stone on it and build our cremation vessels,” he said, speaking of he and his wife, Carla. He built an urn for her, as well.

Plunkett now has another 17 urns in progress in his wood shop, for people who have asked for them. Some he may give away, to those who can’t afford them. He recommends people check in with cemetery officials and funeral home directors to find out what the requirements are. He built his urn out of oak.

“It’s steadfast, old world. It’s just a family tradition.”

Plunkett grew up in Etna watching his father, Bertram Plunkett, do carpentry.

“He could take a square piece of wood, put it upside down on a table saw, bring the blade up to it … spin it around to make a bowl for a parakeet.”

His father had a room in the basement that was 10 foot by 10 foot that had 100 to 150 birds in there.

“Our job as kids, we kept it clean …We kept the birds healthy and happy … He owned a business, Plunkett’s Pet Lands on Hanshaw Road.”

It was their home in Etna.

“I grew up around older people,” Plunkett said. “They painted and drew and did sketches … We all learned how to knit and crochet…we learned from our parents.”

Plunkett has had many jobs. He went to school to be a cook. He worked at Albany International for many years. He had his own sheet metal shop. He worked at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, a favorite.

He can weld, do electrical work and do carpentry.

“I can’t tell you my age,” he said. “There’s a joke: I am as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth.”

His wife does the vending for the Cortland Farmer’s Market and grows the vegetables on their farm. “I do field crops and I do the tractor work, the plowing. The disking. Watering. That type of thing,” John Plunkett said.

It’s seems natural that he’d make his own cremation urn.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Plunkett made this set of urns for cremation remains.

Joe Bowers, owner of Perkins Funeral Home in Dryden with his wife, Karen, said it’s becoming more popular for people to make their own funeral urns — containers to hold their ashes after cremation.

“People want to memorialize themselves the way they want to, having something they make themselves,” he said. “It’s part of them. More and more people are doing that,” he said.

But those final containers don’t have to be a box, he said.

A woman named Betty wanted to have her ashes put in a Betty Boop Cookie Jar, for instance. A Harley-Davidson motorcyclist wanted his urn to be a motorcycle saddle bag.

Bowers and his wife bought the funeral home almost two years ago, but he’s been a funeral director for 20 years. He said homemade caskets are less common in his experience.

Years ago there was a resurgence where people wanted to build their own caskets and several books came out. One design was for a casket that could serve as a coffee table while the person was alive. At their death, it would serve as their final container, he said.

Bowers has only seen two home made caskets in his 20 years. But countless people made their own cremation urns.

One gentleman he knew wanted his remains scattered in several places. He saved Jiffy peanut butter jars for his ashes. Each jar was labeled with a place to scatter the remains. When he died, and he was a big motorcyclist, his wife handed a jar to each of his motorcycle friends, who rode to the destination labeled on the jar and scattered his ashes there, Bowers said.

Brad Perkins, president of Willow Glen Cemetery in Dryden and former owner of Perkins Funeral Home, said it’s key to note that the urn is to hold cremated human remains for “permanent memorialization.”

He’s been in the funeral business 50 years or so and people making their own urns is somewhat common, Perkins said. And there is more and more interest. Perkins started a crematory in Dryden in 1978.

“We’ve put cremated remains in fire extinguishers, tackle boxes, coffee cans, cookie jars … expensive urns,” he said.

And his customers’ ashes have been released to the Ganges River in India, into the woods in Upstate New York, in Cayuga Lake, Virgil Creek, on people’s own property, he said.

“I have a lot of people tell me I am morbid,” said Plunkett. “Yet they get talking to me: ‘My father’s in a cardboard box in my back room. What would it cost me to have something like that?’” they say of his wooden urn.

“There’s people that build full size coffins. They build them for their family. They want something when they go, they want to take something with them.”

Plunkett saw in his research that many cemeteries in New York require caskets be encased in cement vaults when they are buried.

Bowers said this is the case for most cemeteries in the area. It’s not a New York state law; it’s decided by individual cemeteries, he said.

“Local cemeteries in the area require a rigid outer container for burial in addition to the casket to prevent settling and dangerous places for people to walk through,” said Perkins.

“There are many different burial customs and burial beliefs,” he said.

Perkins said the custom in the United States for years has been that people have wanted to be buried in the ground.

“That has transpired over the last few hundred years. Now people are more environmentally concerned. They want the body to be absorbed by soil. This is nothing new. If you study orthodox Jewish custom, that’s what they want.”

Bowers said Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve in Newfield allows a person to be buried in a shroud and lowered into the ground, no casket, no vault, he said. And Willow Glen Cemetery in Dryden has a green section, where people can be buried in a natural area where concrete and steel vaults and grave liners are not allowed.

Only biodegradable material, according to its website: wood, wicker, clothe shroud, for instance.

“Green burials are becoming more popular,” said Bowers.

There is a Marathon cemetery that allows for burial without the cement enclosure and a few in Syracuse, he said.

Perkins said the common theme he’s seen as people plan their burials or cremation urns: “We want to be remembered. We don’t want to be forgotten.”

And the cemetery provides a setting where people can be remembered in peace and safety.

Katie Keyser/ living and leisure editor

John Plunkett at his home in Virgil.

Plunkett plans to be buried at Willow Glen in Dryden.

“My parents are buried there. My wife’s parents and grandparents are buried there.”

“A lot of people want (their urn) on a shelf. I want them hard enough to put down in the ground … It’s just a bunch of ground up bones being stuck in the ground. But it’s my bones in my box,” said Plunkett.