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home : features : features June 24, 2016

7/3/2013 12:01:00 AM
Following the sustainable path
The Hohlbein family, Matt, Mary and daughters (r-l) Nell, 6, and Nancy, 8, stand inside Matt’s workshop where he creates hand crafted wooden frame kayaks and sustainably produced coffins.  The family lives on 10 acres in the small village of Bliss.
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The Hohlbein family, Matt, Mary and daughters (r-l) Nell, 6, and Nancy, 8, stand inside Matt’s workshop where he creates hand crafted wooden frame kayaks and sustainably produced coffins. The family lives on 10 acres in the small village of Bliss.
Jessica Evans
News Manager

Matt and Mary Hohlbein believe in sustainability. They not only believe in it, but practice it in their everyday lives. A large garden and hoophouse provide the family with fresh, healthy produce. Chickens fertilize the garden and also supply the family with eggs and poultry. The Holbein's 10 acres of property in Bliss is also home to a small herd of goats, which they use for meat and milk.

It's no wonder then, to see this lifestyle extend into their business, Nelnamar (which combines Mary's name with their two young daughters, Nancy and Nell), creating sustainably produced wooden caskets, and most recently, lightweight custom kayaks.

"A friend of ours who is a Hospice nurse told us that there is a real need for affordable coffins," Matt said in explanation of how the business started. "A time came when I was between jobs and wondering what I should do, so I decided to design a couple of coffins to see how it would go, and since, I've designed more."

Matt produces a variety of coffins, including those made from all locally sourced pine and walnut hardwood. Coffins are available stained or unfinished, and with the option for an interior, woven by a local weaver in Alanson, as well as the bed and pillow, sewed by Matt and made with organic cotton produced in the U.S. Even the coffin lid fasteners use wool from sheep raised, sheared, and spun down the road from the family.

Matt's newest creation, what he calls the "Michigan coffin," takes his desire for a sustainable product one step further and forgoes all nails and glue to put it together. Instead, he uses wooden pegs and sliding dovetails to build the casket.

"This type of coffin makes the most sense from an ecological standpoint, which has as little impact as possible since we're able to do away with the nails and glue," Matt said.

Since the coffins are ecologically friendly, building them has become a family affair. His daughters Nancy, 8, and Nell, 6, help in various aspects of the building process.

Matt noted the amount of steel, concrete and formaldehyde put in the earth every year via caskets is something he hopes to avoid by producing the coffins without these materials.

"It's a little insane, and it's something that doesn't seem very sustainable over the long term," he said of the combined levels of such substances.

"We realized that with this business, we have the power to make good choices for the environment," Mary added. "There's a way to strike a balance, and we're trying to do that by producing an ecological product and one that's affordable to people. That's also very important to us."

Costs for the coffins range from $950 to $1,650, drastically lower than most conventionally produced coffins.

Matt got started in woodworking during high school, and worked in various cottage industry manufacturing jobs over the years. He ended up taking some boatbuilding classes and now, in addition to the coffins, is starting to build custom made wooden frame kayaks, as well.

The ultra-light kayaks are made from wood and ballistic nylon (the same material bulletproof vests are made from) and weigh approximately 30 pounds for an adult sized boat.

Matt is keen to share his knowledge with others and recently hosted a kayak building workshop on his property. There was no cost for the workshop and participants only paid for the cost of materials. As if kayaks and coffins aren't enough, Matt has also recently started making shoes. So far, he has made pairs for himself, two daughters and is in the process of making them for other family members and friends.

"He's an inventor kind of guy," Mary said with a smile. "I don't think he's happy doing just one thing."

With regard to the family's lifestyle, their business fits in fairly well, they said.

"It's nice to be at home and have a flexible schedule and do something where the whole family can be involved," Matt said. "It's also great to have the freedom to make all my own choices when it comes to design and materials."

When it comes to buying from their neighbors and supporting a local economy, the Hohlbeins are the epitome of community builders. Matt said he doesn't have much desire to market their product nationally, or really outside of the region.

"If towns had carpenters doing something like this within their own communities, people would have more options when it comes to products like this," Matt said. "I feel very strongly about local economy. It makes sense on so many levels to shop local. There's a vested interest when you're selling something to your neighbor instead of on a global scale, and you're more likely to produce a better product."

This mindset defines their family values and guides their daily life.

"Live so that you need less, and what you do need, buy consciously," Mary said. "In our lives, that translates into fixing things versus buying, cooking and baking from scratch, and most importantly, having fun doing things like riding our bikes 17-miles round trip to a friends' house and camping in their backyard!"

For more information about the Hohlbein's business or any upcoming kayak workshops, go to http://www.michigancoffins.com/, email nelnamar@gmail.com or call 231-537-2196.

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