WINSTON-SALEM — Dan Kowalcheck makes coffins.
It’s not anything he studied in school. He studied architecture at Virginia Tech and spent eight years at two different firms in the Twin City. But after he was laid off four years ago and architect jobs were scarce in a tough economy, he started building coffins out of plywood in his garage.
He works to the whine of a saw, surrounded by the constant perfume of sawdust and sanded wood. He keeps a cup of coffee close, listens to old hymns or FM talk radio and makes 20 coffins a year for people as far away as California.
They are all kinds of people — parents who lost children to miscarriages and seniors closing in on the century mark of life.
But mainly, they’re people of the Orthodox faith. People like him.
It’s a strange business, I know. Dan knows it, too. He is 36, a married father of three, a craftsman whose work-a-day mind is steeped in a faith tradition forged centuries ago in eastern Europe. He works with his hands to build coffins painted with prayers written in an ornate font in English, Slavonic and Greek.
That’s what first grabbed my attention. But what cemented it for me was the why.
Dan traded his cubicle for the spot near a rickety basketball goal in his driveway where he works in overalls with a tool belt wrapped around his waist. He sees his children more often. They’re no older than 5. He also sees what he is doing as a ministry, something that fits in with who he is.
He attends the Holy Cross Orthodox Church in High Point. He is one of the church’s three choir directors.
But really, to get who he is, all I have to do is catch sight of a coffee cup, one of his favorites, and read the inscription: “Orthodoxy, It’s A Way of Life.”
But again, why?
When I ask Dan about that, he tells me about his mom. Her name was Carol Ann, or simply Ann in the language of the church. She was a nurse, and Dan was her oldest son, one of her four children.
He built his first coffin for her.
• • •
To understand Dan, you have to understand his mom.
She was meticulous and detail-oriented, a drill sergeant of a mother married to an engineer and devout in her faith.
At her Orthodox church outside of Pittsburgh, she used to make cabbage rolls for the church fundraisers, and every time she did, she weighed the meat to get it just right. And when her priest, the Rev. Tom Soroka, passed out his prayer book at Bible study, Carol Ann found 30 mistakes.
She showed it to Father Tom the next day.
But what Dan remembers — and so does Father Tom — is the plaque by the family door: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Dan is a lot like his mom. His wife, Nora, knows. Dan spent hours upon hours getting their wedding invitations right, and when he has unearthed old scores for the choir to sing in church, he will spend hours scanning them, cleaning them up electronically and printing them so every choir member can read them.
“This is the actual music of my forbearers,” Dan will tell them. “This is tradition.”
Dan is all about tradition, an old soul in a beard whose eagle-eye focus comes from his mom.
Her last three years were rough. It brought a roller coaster of emotions for the entire family. She had received a diagnosis of cancer, a cancer that attacked her adrenal glands, and Dan couldn’t make the long drive to Pennsylvania to see her because of his long hours at an architectural firm in Winston-Salem.
Then came the year that changed everything: 2010.
In April, he was laid off. In July, his paternal grandfather, John Kowalcheck, died. In November, Nora gave birth to their second child, a girl named Allie. Eleven days later, his mom died. She was 57.
After he was laid off, Dan and his family drove to Pennsylvania at least a half-dozen times. His mom’s health declined. But he saw her and talked to her. That was a gift.
As his mom’s cancer got worse, he talked to Nora. He also talked to his priest in High Point, the Rev. Christopher Foley.
Like many of the Orthodox faith, Dan did not believe in cremation because he sees the body as sacred. And Dan knew his mom needed a coffin. But nothing he or his family saw came close to what they wanted or how Carol Ann embraced her faith.
So, when he got the call from his dad, the call he had dreaded for years, Dan knew what he had to do: Build a coffin. And he had already started.
Dan got the call on a Thursday. He heard he had to get the coffin to a funeral home in Pennsylvania by noon Saturday.
So many doubts, so many questions.
Still, Dan got busy.
• • •
Like he does with any architectural project, Dan clicked on a computer mouse and researched.
He sketched out a design and began with plywood, screws, a can of red mahogany stain and a gallon of wood glue that he bought from a local home improvement store. He worked nonstop. He barely slept. His fuel was his coffee and his faith.
For him, it was therapeutic. It wasn’t designing an exterior of a shopping center. He was building something for his mom. In fifth grade, he gave his mom a cutting board, and he pulled it off using the skills he learned from shop class as well as from John Kowalcheck, a man he called Grand Pap.
The cutting board was his first art-project gift to his mom. His last would be her coffin.
He built it in his garage. He sanded so many times it felt like a polished stone.
Father Christopher helped. Together, he and Dan glued to the lid a three-bar cross painted gold and stained the 6-foot-long coffin to bring out the beauty of the wood.
Then, on one side, Dan painted in gold letters the English version of the Trisagion prayer, a prayer so familiar to everyone in their faith: Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us.
With the coffin in the back of the family’s van, Dan took off for Pennsylvania. He stopped at a hardware store in West Virginia to get more dowel pegs for the lid, and he stayed awake by keeping the windows down, drinking coffee and slapping his face.
Dan and his two brothers, Nick and Peter, finished the rest at their family’s home. They put on the handles, drilled the holes for the dowel pegs, slipped a fleece blanket inside and wrote in gold letters the Trisagion Prayer in Church Slavonic language on the other side.
Then, they put on a coat of polyurethane to make it shine and put it in front of three fans to help it dry.
Finally, with the coffin still tacky and reeking with the tell-tale smell of recently refinished furniture, Dan delivered it to the funeral home.
Dan was exhausted. But that’s when the comments came. People couldn’t believe what Dan had done. They loved it. And for Dan, it felt so surreal. He had been laid off for eight months, plagued by worries about his talent and architectural skill. He had built a coffin because of the love he had for his mom.
But it was never about him. It was about her. She looked so perfect in her coffin with the Trisagion Prayer drawn in old-style letters on the sides. Her box shined with an almost ethereal glow. It looked like a work of art.
Father Tom, the priest who married Dan and Nora and who comforted Carol Ann in her last days, was blown away by what he saw. It seemed so fitting of how people of Orthodox faith view death — the final statement of life, a beautiful offering to God.
It also reminded him of one of his favorite quotes from Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.”
Father Tom saw beauty in Dan’s coffin, Carol Ann’s final resting place.
“Dan, I know this isn’t the appropriate time to tell you this, but there is a future in this for you,” Father Tom told Dan at the memorial service. “If you can make these and offer them to other people, I think there is a business here for you.”
Dan wrestled with so many questions based around one thought: “Am I going to be a coffin-maker?”
“A hundred questions were flooding through my mind,” Dan told me the other day from his kitchen table. “Just a whirlwind of stuff. But there was a serenity to it. Up to that point, it had been so hectic and so hard. I had dreaded getting that call from my dad. It was the worst phone call of my life. But after her death, it was like a weight was lifted. She wasn’t suffering.
“And you know, it had been a rough year. I had been laid off, and I wondered if I was good at anything. But it was good to hear those pick-me-ups, and I kept thinking, ‘The Lord has opened up a door in a strange way, and this is the skill set you’ve been given.’ I knew I had to be open to that and that things would work out.”
They have. But not without more heartache.
• • •
Last spring, right before Mother’s Day, I met Dan and Nora. They were celebrating the first birthday of their second daughter, Elena.
But I came to their house in Winston-Salem, near Wake Forest University, to hear how they dealt with the death of their son, Jacob. He died two years ago. He didn’t have a trachea. He was barely an hour old, if that.
As I listened, hearing how Dan and Nora attended a support group in Greensboro and how Nora wrote a blog to help her recover, I found out that Dan had built Jacob’s coffin. I heard about his business. And I heard about his first gallon jug of wood glue.
“The first coffin I used this jug of glue on was for my mom, and I just used up the last little bit for Jacob’s,” he told Nora. “I’m tired of making coffins for my family.”
Two weeks ago, he made a coffin for his godson, a little boy named Silas John. He lived in Jacksonville, Fla. Like Dan’s mom, Silas John was taken by cancer. It had engulfed his entire body. He was only 3.
Silas John was buried in a wooded cemetery beside a monastery in South Carolina. Silas John was buried three steps from Jacob.
Like many people I know, the Kowalchecks cobble together an income through a patchwork of endeavors. Nora sells beauty products, and Dan is working to flip a house. Together, Dan and Nora rent out their old house. But right now, Dan’s coffin business is the big thing that helps feed his growing family.
And there is joy in their house. Nora is pregnant with their fourth child. She is due in March, and she will have a little girl. They call her “Baby K.”
Dan still has questions. But he sees Nora and his kids all the time — Elena, 16 months; Allie, 3; and Adam, 5 — and he sees that what he does gives more meaning to his life. And it’s way better than sitting in a cubicle and designing a shopping center.
His mom’s death opened the door to his new business, and Jacob’s death showed how quickly things can be taken away.
So, Dan wears overalls with this tool belt wrapped around his waist and works in his garage near that rickety basketball goal. He builds coffins out of plywood from a local home-improvement store, sells them for at least $2,000, and so far, he has sent them to 20 states.
He ships them for free. But if he’s close enough, he’ll slip the coffin in the back of his black Toyota Tundra truck and deliver it himself.
He sees that as his ministry, helping people grieve, and it makes him remember his family’s plaque near their front door outside Pittsburgh: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Dan can answer yes.