Thinking outside the box: Olsen enjoying bonding with family while making his own funeral casket

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Posted: Friday, October 25, 2019 6:00 am

Earlier this year, Ed Olsen phoned his daughter during her snowbird stay in Arizona.

Olsen, the retired founder of Olsen Hardware in Hillsboro, called Bonnie Mueller to ask if she would help her dad build his forever home.

But not the average, run-of-the-mill forever home. Olsen wanted his daughter’s assistance building his funeral casket.

“I said ‘Oh my. You’re making a coffin? Should I fly home early?’” Mueller said Monday. “But he said he was fine. It was something he always wanted to do.”

Olsen readily admits he has a problem being idle.

The 89-year-old former hardware store owner said he retired in 1992 “but forgot to quit working.”

Olsen spent the past six years as a part-time employee at Goose River Golf Course in Hillsboro, but vision loss in his right eye forced him to stick closer to home this past winter.

That’s when he came up with the idea of building a casket as a woodworking project.

“I like working with wood, so when I sat down to figure out what I wanted to do, I decided I would make myself a box,” he said.

Olsen never imagined his carpentry skills would create so much bonding time with his family.

He asked his grandson Scott, Hillsboro-Central Valley’s head football coach, to search online for the dimensions required to make a casket.

Standard funeral caskets are 23 inches tall, 28 inches wide and 84 inches long.

“So then I had the dimensions, but I didn’t really have a pattern and nothing to go by,” Olsen said. “I’d lie awake half the night thinking about how I was going to build it.”

He roped in his son Jerry, who lives near Park Rapids, Minn., to help purchase the lumber.

The pair picked out unstained slabs of pine for the casket’s walls and top, along with pieces of redwood for the bottom and mahogany for the trim.

“I like pieces with knots because it gives the wood a little more character,” Olsen said.

Mueller was asked to spruce up the interior of the casket, which has been lined with a Minnesota Twins blanket and a light blue pillow.

She agreed to help on the condition that they not keep their project a secret.

“I went into a fabric store … and the girl there said, ‘You must be making a fun project.’ I told her I was lining the inside of my dad’s coffin and she said, ‘Oh really?’” Mueller said.

“When I went back for more material she said, ‘I remember you. You’re the coffin lady.’”

Mueller said she and her dad have relished working together on the project, even though its inevitable purpose revolves around a topic people can find uncomfortable.

“It was a little morbid at first, but we’ve had a lot of laughs while working on this,” Mueller said. “It’s a serious thing, but at the same time it’s not.”

Marty Baumgartner of Wildeman-Boulger Funeral Home in Hillsboro has seen photos of Olsen’s casket.

It’s the first self-made funeral casket Baumgartner has seen in his 24 years at Boulger.

“I’ve had family members make caskets for their loved ones, but never had an individual make their own,” he said. “And those caskets didn’t have the details that Ed put into his.”

Baumgartner commended the personalization that’s gone into Olsen’s woodworking.

“In the funeral industry personalization is very big. How do we make this funeral unique for a family? But the Olsens have done this themselves,” Baumgartner said.

“You don’t get any more personal than this and the family bonding that’s gone into it.”

Olsen said he’s shared countless jokes about his woodworking project with his friends, too.

“One of them said he’d put a funnel and a tube down and deliver drinks to me,” Olsen said, laughing. “I’m getting a lot of good ideas from my buddies.”

Olsen said he’s proud of the personal touches that he and Mueller have added to the casket.

The side of the burial chamber is lined with a cross and a large wooden fish, while the casket’s doorknobs are made from deer antlers.

Olsen was the longtime caretaker for the deer in Hillsboro’s Woodland Park for decades.

The casket’s handles are made from copper tubing, a nod to the hardware store Olsen founded.

And a short strip of fabric inside the wooden box features a variety of fish found in North Dakota.

“That has all the fish we ever caught with dad,” Mueller said.

Olsen estimated he spent $200 and at least a couple hundred hours on the project prior to its completion.

He’d still like a fishing pole to be attached to the side of the casket when the day comes.

Olsen’s passion for fishing will be hard to hide from anyone who sees the ornate box from the outside. Of course, it may be difficult to miss from the inside, too.

A half-dozen matted photos of Olsen fishing line the interior of one of the casket doors.

“Dad said he needed something here,” said Mueller, pointing to a spot inside the casket. “He said ‘Well, what am I supposed to be looking at when I’m lying here?’”

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