Funny, isn’t it, how the living often get squeamish about how our remains will be secured as we enter the afterlife?

Whether it’s an urn for those who choose cremation, or a casket, a lot of people are uneasy with the subject. But when you walk into a room filled with hand-made wooden caskets, you realize that until they are put to their intended use, they are nothing more than wooden boxes.

As we settle in for an interview, Brad Opheim and I take chairs in his carpentry shop off Highway 200 near Sun River. To my left, and behind Brad, are caskets under construction. Quite a few more are stacked on shelves in a back room. I resist the urge to ask if they are empty.

Brad was born in the town that bears the family name, Opheim, Montana. There were six kids in the family. Brad’s father worked a variety of jobs to support the family - he was a school bus driver, a boilermaker that kept the local school’s boiler running, and he worked on a dairy farm.

By 1965, Brad’s dad had decided to take a job at the smelter in Great Falls. His dad came to the area before moving the family and found a house in Sun River.

This was after the ‘64 flood, and when his dad stepped into the home he had just purchased, he fell through the floor. Soon his dad had fixed the house and brought the family to Sun River.

After the smelter closed, Brad’s father took a job as a carpenter building modular homes. By the time he was ten years old, Brad was helping his dad build the homes.

Brad graduated from Simms High School in 1974. After learning from his dad, it was natural for him to work as a carpenter. He specializes in finish work.

In June 2002, Brad’s 19-year-old nephew lost his life in an auto accident. As the family mourned, one of Brad’s brothers suggested he build a casket for his nephew.

Brad said that first casket became a labor of love for him, something he created with his own hands that would remain with his nephew for eternity. Since that first one, Brad has been building caskets regularly for about ten years now. He uses blue pine and knotty alder. The blue pine has a unique coloring, the result of pine beetles. The blue pine is the best seller. “People see one, and then they want one,” said Brad. He says that the pine is easier to work with, compared with the alder.

Brad enjoys telling stories about some of his customers who buy their caskets in advance. “There are a lot of my caskets up in the rafters.” He says that when those customers pass on, the family will find the casket up in the attic. One customer asked if Brad could concoct a set of shelves that could fit into the casket as it sat upright in their home, so that it could be used for storage until it came time for its ultimate purpose.

In Montana, like most states, a person, or the family, can purchase whatever type of casket they want from any source. For those squeamish about the wooden casket, state law does require that any casket be contained in a water-tight burial vault.

On average, Brad says that he builds a couple of caskets a month. There was the time, though, he sold three in one day. Often, his orders are on short notice.

Once he constructs the casket, he sends it to a paint shop in Great Falls where a lacquer finish is applied. The customer can opt for a fancier set of hardware, and Brad says that he would consider special requests, such as a different type of wood.

One of the more peculiar requests he has gotten is for customers to help with the construction of their own caskets, but when you think about it, that is the final “personal touch,” especially for a craftsman. Brad also told the Sun Times that he had been contacted by other people who just want to learn how to make caskets.

One question we posed to Brad, “what is the difference between a coffin and a casket?” Brad told us that a coffin is more of the old style, tapered at the head and feet. The casket is more of a plain rectangle. Brad does build caskets to order, including the dimensions.

The finished casket it just that, a casket, or in the old western terms, a pine box. “I don’t do any upholstering,” said Brad. “It’s up to the customer to personalize with padding, maybe use quilts that were a favorite of the deceased.”

A Montana-made blue pine casket, with handles, hinges and a lock goes for $1,200. An alder casket sells for $1,600. Urns are priced at about $150.

For those who want to give their pets a personal place to rest for eternity, Brad offers pet caskets starting at $100 to $200 for the four standard sizes. Custom sizes may be more expensive.

For those who would like more information, you can contact Brad on his mobile phone at (406) 590-3375, or by email at bradjanae@gmail.com