Inspired by the first casket that he made, Tobie Beneli has continued making them for the last 16 years. But it wasn't what he originally set out to do.
Beneli and his wife Lin have owned Summit Ridge Wood Design for over 20 years, but have only been making caskets since one of his cousins passed away in 1997 and he was asked to make a casket for him.
"It was an emergency situation," he said. "I wasn't sure what I was doing."
But he did the best he could for his family.
Up until then, he had been making custom cabinets for residents, and other wood products. Now, he continues to make parts for the cabinets, which helps out cabinetmakers in many other parts of the state, such as Denver and Colorado Springs. But now his focus is on caskets.
And they are beautiful and artistic.
Before he went on with his casket-making, though, Beneli, a Navajo woodcraftsman, consulted two medicine men from his tribe about whether or not he should continue.
"We were told that it was okay," he said. But they also told him to make a cut in the blankets that he used for the lining, in order to make them slightly imperfect. They told him that was the way the old Navajos did it, so that the spirit of the dead would not be tempted to stay.
"They're all imperfect," he said, "but it doesn't compromise the casket itself. The customer can't tell."
Beneli's business is located between Mancos and Dolores on Highway 184, having started it in his home. It has expanded from his garage, which has been remodeled into the office, and there are three other buildings that house the production side of the business.
One of the buildings, where three workers busily - and carefully - put together the caskets, holds a huge $150,000 machine called a CNC (computer numerically controlled) router that cuts wood according to very precise specifications programmed by a computer.
Most of the caskets are made from aromatic cedar, a wood that he gets shipped from back east, he said. The wood is cut and sanded in a large dust-filled room by workers who wear masks to protect them. The caskets are then sent to another room to be laquered, and then moved to the final building where a woman lines them with beautiful Pendleton blankets. It's the customer's choice which color blanket or shawl is used to line the casket.
The caskets also include etched designs on the outside or inside, depending on the customer's preference. Many of the designs are Navajo or Western-themed, created by an artist.
Beneli has only five employees now. He used to have seven, he said, besides himself and his wife, but since 2008, he has had to get by with fewer because of the economy.
"We keep about five caskets in stock all the time," he said. As we wandered through the finishing building, he lifted the soft, protective blankets that are on each one to show the shiny caskets. "But when we get a large order, we scurry around to make more," he said. Some of them are less expensively made - a simple oak box with very little decoration - or can be made to accommodate a larger person.
It's not an assembly line, by any means. He said they only make three or four caskets in about as many days. They are each lovingly made by employees who care what kind of product they make.
Beneli has taken to heart his beliefs from his Navajo upbringing. He wants to help as many Navajo - and other Native American - families as he can.
"The casket industry is a really tough and strange industry," he said. He said that even though most of the Navajos that he's dealt with use the traditional funerals, he knows that they are often taken advantage of because of their lack of money and knowledge about the whole process.
"I just want to let them know that they have choices," he said. He counsels all of his customers on what those options are and what they can do about the burial and casket purchases. He ultimately leaves those choices up to the customer, though.
He sells many of his caskets to funeral homes, citing ones in Grand Junction, Delta, Durango and Alamosa. But he's open to anything that the customer wants to do, including selling right to them without using the funeral home as "middleman".
The medicine men that he consulted about the casket-making also told him something else. "They told me never to make it about the money," Beneli said. And he hasn't. He listens to his customers and tries to meet their needs, whatever they are.
Beneli has spent what free time he has - and he has very little of it these days - making traditional Navajo food for the 12 or so Native American residents of Vista Grande in Cortez once a month. "I just love to do this for them," he said. He might make lamb stew, squash or corn for them, and there is a woman from Shiprock who makes the traditional fry bread for him, too.
"He started in the old building about 10 years ago, bringing this food all on his own and serves it," said Kim Mc Donnell, Activities Director for Vista Grande. "It's been wonderful! He's opened a lot of doors to me in the Native American world. He speaks their language. They can relate to him and he let's them know I can be trusted. He has served the elderly very well."
The residents, he said, who are used to this kind of food, enjoy eating it and also love to talk with him while he's there. They look forward to his visits each month. And he enjoys giving back to his people.
"He always thanks me when he's done," said McDonnell.
Beneli hopes to continue doing what he's doing, helping the Native American people all he can, both with his caskets and with his homemade food.
He has stayed true to his calling.