The coffinmaker

Marcus Daly at work. Photo: Stephen Brashear Marcus Daly at work. Photo: Stephen Brashear

‘A hunger for authenticity’ led Marcus Daly back to church and his life’s vocation

When Marcus Daly moved to Vashon Island in 2001, his heart was “completely intoxicated by God.”

The Catholic-born Philadelphian had drifted away from the faith before being pulled back in his late 20s. He settled in the Puget Sound area, married, had a child, and decided Vashon was a place with less noise and more promise.

Now he was searching for a job that was not just a living but a vocation. He’d been a commercial fisherman, carpenter, landscaper and wooden boat-builder.

And then he watched the funeral of St. John Paul II on TV in 2005. The pope had chosen a simple wood coffin with a Marian cross. Looking at it Daly thought, “There’s a vessel for a different kind of dream.”

From that thought came Marian Caskets, the handmade casket business Daly runs from his Vashon Island woodworking shop.

“It’s allowed me to put my heart and my hands into it in a way that boat-building, as neat as it would be, wouldn’t have,” Daly said.

Corporal work of mercy

Daly sees God’s mercy in his own reconversion to Catholicism. “I’d grown up Catholic but I hadn’t really understood what I was hearing,” he said. His parents divorced when he was young. He and his brother were mostly raised by their mom. He continued attending Mass through college and his 20s but felt disengaged from his faith.

It wasn’t until 1997, when a friend invited him on a trip to the Middle East, that he found his way back. The experience of walking where Jesus walked, where biblical events happened, overwhelmed him. Afterward, he took a recommendation to visit Madonna House, a lay Catholic community in Ontario.

“I encountered for the first time in my life a large group of people who had given their lives completely to Christ, and I could tangibly recognize Christ’s presence burning inside of them,” he said.

Kelly DalyKelly Daly upholsters a coffin. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Together, the Middle East pilgrimage and Madonna House experiences turned Daly’s life “happily, properly upside down.”

Shortly after getting back to Seattle from Ontario, he caught a ferry to Vashon on a whim and discovered a quieter, pastoral setting. When he and his wife, Kelly, had their first child and wanted to leave the Capitol Hill area, the idea of Vashon came up again.

They moved there in 2001, bought a five-acre property and had six more kids, all at home. They also lost two babies to miscarriages. The first was laid to rest in the first coffin Marcus made.

Kelly homeschools the children while Marcus works next door in his shop. His work seeps into Daly family life. Not only will you find the kids playing just outside the workshop, they sometimes help sweep up and vacuum in the shop. The older kids make some of the simple wooden platforms used to elevate a person’s body in a coffin for viewing during funerals. Kelly lines coffins in muslin and makes cotton pillows stuffed with straw, meant to echo the baby Jesus lying in a manger.

The Daly children sometimes go on deliveries with their dad. They often meet people who come out to have a Marian casket made for them. And the family remembers in their nightly rosary those who have died or are dying. The kids see death as a faith-infused part of life, not the end of life, Daly said. “The faith comes before, during and after any conversation about death, so it’s transformed by faith. It’s not just this stark horror.”

Connections beyond customers

Daly knows at least something about all the people for whom he makes caskets. He often meets those commissioning caskets or will look up their obituaries and listen to family members’ stories.

He spends about 20 hours on each coffin, and as he cuts, glues, sands and carves, he prays for the person it’s meant for. “I also pray that I might be like them because there are all these great people in the world,” he said.

“Marcus just has a pastoral care and concern for the people that he works with in helping them at a very tender moment in their lives,” said Father David Mayovsky, pastor at St. John Vianney Parish on Vashon Island, where the Daly family goes. “He’s very interested in trying to help people … in reverencing the body, even in death.”

The caskets Daly makes are either pine or oak. Most are carved with the Marian cross, the concluding prayer from the Divine Mercy chaplet — “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, Have Mercy on Us” — and the Divine Mercy message, “Jesus, I Trust in You.”

“I thought the words from the chaplet of the Divine Mercy were the most appropriate thing to put in there to try to open people’s hearts to God’s merciful love,” Daly said.

There are also personalized engravings on some coffins. For instance, a retired Air Force pilot and war hero asked for his casket engraving to read: “God thank you for all the incredible adventures you’ve given me on and above planet earth.” He also sent Daly an iPod full of his favorite music to listen to as Daly made his coffin.

Daly does most local deliveries himself and also ships coffins across the country. A few months ago, when he discovered that he couldn’t two-day ship a casket for an upcoming funeral for Michael Diekhans, a Catholic from Great Falls, Montana, he drove straight through the night to get it there in time for the services.

“I couldn’t believe someone would do something like that,” said Lisa Diekhans, Michael’s wife. She loved the simplicity of his coffin. “It just seems like as a Christian we are supposed to try and live simply.”

Ciely DalyCiely Daly, 15, is the oldest of Marcus and Kelly Daly’s seven children. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Authentic life

The Dalys have made friends with fellow islanders who originally moved to Vashon seeking a simpler life and wound up converting to Catholicism.

Collin Medeiros is one of those friends. He has known Marcus and Kelly since working with them at a landscaping company in Seattle. It was largely the Dalys’ influence that led Medeiros and his wife to become Catholic.

“He offered friendship but he also offered authentic dialogue,” Medeiros said of Marcus.

“Their family was and has been a wonderful example for us of marriage and the beauty of openness to life, the beauty of the covenant of marriage and what it is,” Medeiros said. The couple now has six kids.

“I think there are people who come to Vashon looking for an authentic way of life,” Daly said, maybe working with their hands or raising and eating organic food. “And they bump up against [the realization that] that’s still not everything.

“So I think there’s a hunger for authenticity that eventually God is the only one to fill.”

Kelly Daly said that among their circle of friends, her husband is known as “Marcus the evangelist” because “he’s the one most comfortable sharing the faith and asking people what they believe.”

The first thing she thinks about when it comes to her husband is “how much he wants to heal the woundedness in our culture.”

“The business is a natural extension of that,” she said. “He sincerely loves to talk to people and to try and share whatever hope he can with those who might be suffering.

“It is a privilege, you know, to be able to serve in that way, to be able to enter in to someone’s suffering and someone’s joy, as well, because there is joy,” Kelly added. “It’s a strange juxtaposition.”

Marcus believes a funeral done well is a powerful gift. “Because of the fear and the morbidity surrounding death, we stand too far back to be able to see through death,” he said. “So if we come close to it, we see through it. God gives us grace to see through it.

“The way I think about it and the way I talk about it is centered around mystery, not morbidity,” he said. “Getting to spend all this time this close to a really hard reality that God has allowed, ultimately for our own good, has given me a privileged place to go deeper and deeper and deeper into a mystery.”

The Coffinmaker from Dan McComb on Vimeo.

Northwest Catholic - November 2016

Anna Weaver

Anna Weaver was the multimedia, online and social media editor, and writer for Northwest Catholic from 2013-2018.