HILLSBORO, N.D. — Ed Olsen's family admits the project he started working on last winter seems a little morbid. At first, daughter Bonnie Mueller thought the same.
“I just remember going silent,” she said, wondering whether she should cut short her stay in Arizona when she first heard about it.
Olsen, 89, has built his own coffin — stirring up curiosity in this Traill County town of about 1,600 people, 40 miles north of Fargo.
The project is not necessarily an indication of his state of health. Though Olsen has diabetes and lost vision in his right eye after a stroke, he’s still pretty peppy.
“I just wanted to see if I could do it,” he said, showing off the creation that will serve as his final resting place.
Woodworking has been Olsen’s chief hobby since he retired 25 years ago from the Hillsboro business he founded, Olsen Hardware.
He and wife Marlis, 87, live in a former grocery store space right next to the establishment, now run by one of their sons. The spot has plenty of room for him to tinker with wood.
Olsen has crafted countless TV tables, magazine racks, picture frames, cradles, toys and pencil holders for friends and family over the years. But in February, he decided to try building a box — a coffin, specifically.
He had nothing to go by to make one, so he enlisted the help of family.
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One of his grandchildren researched dimensions of a typical casket online, and a son helped him pick out the lumber. Olsen chose pine for the sides and top, because of its distinctive knots and blemishes, along with redwood for the bottom and mahogany for the trim.
He used deer antlers as knobs on the coffin lid, along with heavy rope and copper tubing for the handles. He made a cross and a fish out of wood to adorn one side, reflecting his faith and love of fishing.
All told, Olsen put more than 200 hours of work into the project.
He even had the safety of others in mind, coming up with a method to hold the coffin lid open securely during the funeral viewing and a leather strap to keep it from opening too far.
Mueller was called on for the details, including staining the wood of the coffin and providing the comfort features inside. She sewed sheets out of flannel with a fishing motif and made a fleece blanket with fabric featuring the Minnesota Twins, her dad's favorite baseball team.
Initially, he suggested they simply buy Styrofoam for his body to lie on, but Mueller convinced him to go with soft foam.
At one point, the two decided the inner lid of the coffin seemed bare. They gathered photos of him fishing at his favorite spot, Stump Lake, and mounted them, so when he’s lying there “he can look at them,” she said. One of his fishing poles will also be placed in the coffin before burial.
Upon his death, Olsen wants to be dressed casually, like he always is, in a pair of blue pants, a blue plaid shirt and white socks. “If I put a tie on him, he said he would haunt me,” Mueller said.
One of Olsen's friends suggested a way he could enjoy his favorite brandy in the afterlife. “They said they're going to put a hole down and a funnel on the top, so they can ... give me a shot once in a while,” he said with a chuckle.
After building the shell of the casket, Olsen moved it out of his sawdust-filled shop into a large activity area where he and Mueller could start working on some of the finer details.
But in May, when the family held a community celebration there to mark the hardware store’s 50th anniversary, they moved the coffin into their living room, where it still sits for the time being.
They plan to use it as a chest to store blankets, until it’s needed for its final purpose. Olsen's five kids, 13 grandkids and 18 great-grandkids hope that’s still years down the road.
With the coffin now finished, someone in the family suggested he try it out, maybe take a little nap in there to see how he fits.
“I’ll wait,” Olsen said, laughing.