Klamath Tribes woodworking craftsman Turtle DeLorme makes caskets for tribal members

Suffering the loss of a loved one is a pain too familiar to bereaving families. The price of burial can be another setback to a family already coping with its loss. With the average price of a casket exceeding $2,000, Klamath Tribes member Turtle DeLorme looks to alleviate the financial stress mourning families face when a loved one passes.

DeLorme, 69, is a retired carpenter – a profession he occupied since the age of 17 – and he now builds caskets for families and individuals seeking financially-friendly alternatives to exorbitant prices offered by the market today.

The price of a casket deters many families from pursuing a traditional burial, opting for cremation instead. However, before settlers encroached on the Northwest, it was common practice for Indigenous peoples of the region to bury the deceased.

According to DeLorme, some tribes of the north left the deceased out to be consumed by nature before burying the bones. Similar practices, known as sky burials, are more common today than most people realize and are still deeply ingrained in Tibetan culture.

DeLorme does not advocate for a return to such a ritual, though he does believe “Native people would prefer to go back to Mother Earth.”

“This is the third,” said DeLorme, displaying a recently finished casket ready to be shipped the following day. “I call them boxes. I don’t consider them caskets until somebody’s buried in them. But my family, all my Elders, were buried, and traditionally, the Klamath buried their loved ones in the family. And we’ve gotten away from it. It’s not traditional anymore.”

DeLorme makes his boxes, as he prefers to call them, out of Oregon alder wood from the coast. He can obtain the wood at a reasonable price and, therefore, afford to make the boxes very inexpensive.

“I don’t even like the word ‘sell,’” DeLorme said. “I’m trying to get the boxes at my cost, the cost of labor, the cost of the shop. This is not my shop, so basically, I’m renting the tools in the shop; that’s all figured in the price.” The shop DeLorme works out of belongs to his close friend, Jeff Bush.

DeLorme also plans to make some of his boxes in kit form, which will be easily shipped and ready for the customer to assemble on delivery.

Before retiring, DeLorme’s specialty was custom doors, and two examples of his work are prominently displayed upon entering Mazatlan Mexican restaurant on Washburn Way and Lake of the Woods. But for the past 20 years, he knew he wanted to make “boxes,” fulfilling a desire to see his people reclaim a way back to a more traditional type of ceremony.

When DeLorme’s mentor, R. Scott Jarvie, fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer, DeLorme assured him he would make him a casket. “It’s really fancy, made out of burled Oregon myrtle, which is kind of a really exotic wood.”

It is not uncommon to continue working post-retirement, and DeLorme does so with an intrinsic sense of duty. “I’m not interested in being overwhelmed making boxes,” he said. I’m not doing this for profit.”

In the past, he trained individuals from all walks of life how to make custom doors. “I’ve successfully taught six, seven people, a couple of women how to make doors,” said DeLorme, showing a catalogue of some of his previous work. “And they helped me make these doors.”

Now, part of his long-term goal is to bring on apprentices and train them in building and providing caskets to families of the recently deceased.

“At my age, it keeps me busy, keeps me moving,” DeLorme said, reflecting on his motivation for building caskets. “It’s something that I can do for others, something I can teach – I have always been a good teacher. If I can pass this down to just a few, it would be a legacy enough for me.”