The 'Casket Catechesis' of John Paul II

The late pope’s funeral inspired woodworker Marcus Daly to start his own casket-making business.

Marcus Daly at work in his shop.
Marcus Daly at work in his shop. (photo: Courtesy of the subject)

When the term “catechesis” is used in reference to Blessed Pope John Paul II, most people think of topics such as Marian devotion or the sacrifice of the Mass. Wayne, Pa., native Marcus Daly, however, thinks of caskets.

It was during John Paul II’s funeral on April 8, 2005, that Daly, a 45-year-old father of six, first made the casket-catechesis connection. Amid the grandeur of St. Peter’s Square and the presence of numerous kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers, the late Holy Father’s body had been placed in a simple wooden box. This made a deep and lasting impression on Daly, who began his business, Marian Caskets, in 2009.

Daly, who lives on Vashon Island, Wash., has found that caskets, death and eternity are not topics people usually want to start talking about. However, if they do start, they can’t seem to stop.

Daly recently spoke of his role in burying the dead, the seventh of the corporal works of mercy, with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.


Have you been woodworking since childhood?

Actually, I grew up near Philadelphia in a family with more of an intellectual bent than a manual one. We had a lot of lawyers in the family, but not any woodworkers. Throughout childhood, I always yearned to work with my hands, though.

It wasn’t until my late teens that I put something together from wood. I taught myself carpentry, which allowed me to do some home projects in my early 20s. I remodeled houses and apartments with a few friends in Seattle.

After the remodels, I continued laboring manually as a fisherman and then got back into woodworking — this time with boats. I moved from Seattle right across the Puget Sound to Vashon Island with my wife, Kelly, in 2001. I had the intention of starting my own wooden-boat manufacturing company. That turned out to be difficult financially, so I got into landscaping.


Then you were influenced by Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005.

It really struck me how, amidst all the splendor of St. Peter’s Square, John Paul II had this simple wooden casket. There was nothing fancy about it; the only decoration it had was a Marian cross. It was profoundly beautiful and honest, because it pointed to the passing nature of this world. John Paul II had been lauded by millions, a good number of whom were actually present at the funeral, and yet he had chosen to be buried in a plain wooden box.

That was what I call a "casket catechesis": The casket itself taught us so much about the Catholic faith, because it brought eternity to mind. Unlike the ornate caskets that mask the reality of death, this one made it clear that you can’t take material possessions with you to the next life, but you can take the grace you’ve gained.

I loved the Marian cross on the top, which symbolizes the truth that any grace we receive comes through the cross of Christ and Mary’s intercession. Jesus bequeathed his Mother to all of us Christians when he was dying on the cross.

The company is called Marian Caskets because it was through Mary’s simple and pure faith that Our Lord came, bodily, into the world and because she was at the foot of the cross for the death that destroyed death. I build caskets to make a clear proclamation of faith for those who are carried within them.


The funeral in 2005 was not the first time you gained something from John Paul II.

No, it wasn’t. I can remember being influenced by him as far back as 1979. In October of that year, my father, who had divorced my mother two years previously, when I was 8, took me and my brother out of school to attend a Mass celebrated by John Paul II in Philadelphia.

I was used to going to Mass with my brother and mother, which we did every Sunday, but it was something special when our dad took us. I don’t think I could have put that into words back then, but despite my less-than-ideal family life and living out of the faith, that papal Mass planted some seeds that would take years to sprout.

When I saw the Holy Father on TV at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993, I remember being impressed by the fact that there were actually young people in the world who were joyful. I was unhappy at the time, and I was surrounded by other unhappy people my age. Yet here was this huge crowd of people my age and younger who were not only captivated by the charisma of the pope, but who actually agreed with what he taught as the Vicar of Christ.

When I was about to get married in 1999, I was given a copy of Familiaris Consortio by my uncle, who is a priest. By then, I had grown in my knowledge and love of the faith, but after reading that apostolic exhortation of John Paul II, it was painfully obvious that I didn’t know what marriage was about. I was so thankful that I had the opportunity to remedy that lack before I got married.


How are your caskets different from those people normally see?

I craft simple, affordable caskets that make a statement about the faith of the deceased person. All of our models are oak or pine, with no frills. However, we do carve prayers — especially Divine Mercy ones — on the sides, if requested. “Jesus, I trust in You” can be etched on the short sides and “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, Have Mercy on Us” on the long sides. I became familiar with these prayers by listening to Seattle’s Sacred Heart Radio, and I think they’re powerfully presented when on the sides of caskets.


Do you find that people are receptive to Divine Mercy at funerals?

They are, but, unfortunately, Divine Mercy isn’t always presented well. There are two common extremes when people die these days. One is to have lots of decorations and festivities that distract us from the reality of death. The other extreme is not arranging a funeral at all, but simply having the person’s remains burned and crushed in cremation, put in an urn and possibly scattered around somewhere. There’s a happy medium to those extremes, though, and I like to help make that possible at Marian Caskets with simple but dignified products.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially in Nos. 362-366, we learn that it is through our bodies that the elements of the material world are brought to their perfection, so our bodies are not inherently evil or disposable; rather, they are part of who we are, and they will be raised up on the Last Day to be reunited with our souls. That’s why I don’t like cremation. It is allowed if it’s not done out of a denial of the resurrection of the body [Catechism, 2301], but it’s not the ideal, and I think a lot of misunderstandings can come from it. In fact, I think a lot of misunderstandings can lead to the choice of cremation in the first place. While people may not be denying the resurrection outright, there seems to be a growing indifference we need to confront.

With that said, I think the Church’s funeral liturgy is an unparalleled opportunity for the truth of Jesus Christ to shine on our dark world. People want to know how to face the specter of death and see the latent beauty in it.


Are your caskets available through funeral homes?

When I first started Marian Caskets in 2009, I inquired at funeral homes as to whether they’d be interested in my products. I was trying to make simple wooden boxes more available. However, the funeral homes were not interested, so all of the sales are done directly. There’s no middle man, which, in addition to the simple materials used, is a factor that keeps costs down.


Is it difficult to coordinate the delivery of caskets with funerals?

We can have the caskets delivered within 48 hours of notification, so timing hasn’t been a problem thus far. We also have quite a few customers who have had their caskets delivered before need. They store them in places such as their garage, a spare bedroom or, even, as is the case with some priests, in their private chapels. A few of the priests have ended up giving their caskets to parishioners who died and needed one. I recently attended a weekday Mass of a priest who had done just this and, therefore, needed another casket. At the beginning of the Mass, he announced to everyone, “Here’s Marcus Daly to deliver my second casket!”

Having a casket nearby is a great way to meditate upon death. That may seem very unappealing at first, but the Church strongly encourages us to do that. The four last things (death, judgment, heaven and hell) are supposed to be regular topics of meditation for the faithful. This is not meant to sadden anyone, but to get us to face the fleeting nature of this world and then orient our lives toward the ultimate happiness of heaven. Reading Preparation for Death by St. Alphonsus Liguori is one way to do this, and The Incorruptibles by Joan Carroll Cruz can be, as well.

Sometimes people call death “natural,” but there’s nothing natural about it, in the sense that God did not intend for death to exist. What brought death into the world was sin, so if we remove sin from our lives, death loses its sting. We can actually look forward to death with a firm hope of eternal life. Then death is seen not as the end, but the only entryway into Our Father’s heavenly kingdom. That’s what Marian Caskets’ motto expresses in so few words: "Bringing Eternity to Life."

Even though death is a topic that people don’t want to start talking about, if they do start, they can’t seem to stop. I spoke at a local Legatus meeting and was told afterward that the Q-and-A session was the longest they had ever witnessed. This was despite the fact that this Legatus chapter had hosted many well-known speakers with far, far more speaking experience that I had. It wasn’t me that touched them; it was the topic.


Being a woodworker associated with death on a daily basis, I’m guessing you have a devotion to St. Joseph, a carpenter, who is the patron of a happy death.

I do have a devotion to St. Joseph, who taught Jesus how to work with his hands. It’s touching to think about those two working together with wood, hammers and nails, which would later be the very instruments of Jesus’ death (and our sanctification). St. Joseph was preparing Jesus not only for life, but for death.

As someone from a divorced family, for me, St. Joseph has also been a very noble ideal for fatherhood. Being a compassionate yet strong man is something worth striving for every day, and St. Joseph is the benchmark for that.


It has been said that Seattle is the most unchurched city in the most unchurched state in the country. Have you found it difficult to influence locals outside the Church for the better?

Well, if you consider Vashon Island as part of the greater Seattle area, we are probably the most unchurched part of the most unchurched city in the most unchurched state in the country. It’s an area not known for traditional Christian morality. However, it is known as an area for people who are looking for an authentic way of life.

What I mean is, it’s common for people to move here with the intent of “going green” by being closer to nature and eating organic food or maybe even working on their own farm. We have good friends of our family who moved here in 2005 to start a goat farm. At the time, the couple wasn’t married, but had two children. Now, by the grace of God, they’re Catholic and have five children.

They wanted to be genuine people living a good life; it’s just that they weren’t initially thinking of Catholicism as being a part of that. People are slowly realizing that Catholicism is the most authentic way of life — the truly radical way of existing in a confused and oftentimes artificial world.

I hope that Marian Caskets is a part of this spiritual awakening, where death is accepted but where it won’t have the last word. That’s what the casket catechesis of soon-to-be St. John Paul II is all about: facing reality with humility, acknowledging our sins and asking for God’s mercy.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.

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