David Campbell prizes unusual shapes and grains, which inspire artistic creations. He uses wood from fallen trees or those cut down out of necessity. (Photo by Linda L. Riley)

David Campbell prizes unusual shapes and grains, which inspire artistic creations. He uses wood from fallen trees or those cut down out of necessity. (Photo by Linda L. Riley)

by Linda L. Riley

David Campbell’s woodworking took a surprising turn when his father-in-law became seriously ill. At the time, Campbell was 56 and had been teaching woodworking, carpentry and construction at Eastern Center for Arts and Technology in Willow Grove for almost 13 years.

“I knew he was going to die, and I just started making his casket. I didn’t tell anyone,” Campbell says. It became a way to pay homage to the man who originally introduced him to woodworking and with whom he was very close. “While I was working on it, I was thinking of him — all the things we did; it was a cathartic experience.

“When I finished it, I came upstairs and said, ‘I’m done.’” He had told his wife, Renie, about it not long before. “We went to see him, and two hours later, he died. I decided at that time to change careers and commit myself to doing woodworking full-time.” That was in 2008.

“This experience inspired me to consider all of the passages we go through in life — births, marriages, families growing and changing, aging, death. I realized my life’s purpose was to create special pieces to mark these passages.”

Since then, Campbell has dedicated himself full-time to his woodworking under the name “The Woodsmyth” (www.woodsmyth.com).

Each of his hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind pieces is custom-made. Among them have been cradles, Chuppah wedding canopies, hope chests and other pieces of furniture. He allows each piece of wood to suggest its use. Cross-sections from the trunk of a walnut tree became a 14-foot long bench that provides seating in a gallery at the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill.

The massive, gnarled root of a cherry tree became a magnificent menorah which is among his works currently on display at “The Art of It” gallery at 315 Old York Rd. in Jenkintown.

Among the most meaningful commissions, he says, are the caskets and urns he crafts for life’s final passage. That first casket, created for his father-in-law, set him on a quest to learn more about funeral practices, customs and regulations. He discovered that, although embalming is a common practice today, it is not required by law.

Designed to preserve the body, he says it became prevalent in the U.S. during the Civil War when great numbers of soldiers died on the battlefields, far from home. Their bodies were embalmed to make it possible to transport them home for burial. Campbell is part of a “green” funeral movement that shuns the practice and others designed to prevent or delay the natural process.

“Embalming is not necessary at all in today’s world, and it is a process that uses very toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, which poison the earth and seep into groundwater,” Campbell says. “My caskets, made from recycled or reclaimed wood and made without toxic chemicals or metals, honor the earth and the lives of those who are returned to the earth.”

He points out that under the Federal Trade Commission’s “Funeral Rule,” a funeral home may not refuse to accept any container in which you wish to bury your loved one. “People don’t know this,” he says.

His caskets range from a simple pine box to a sleek cylinder to a hollowed-out tree trunk. Images, shapes and symbols that are meaningful to the deceased are often carved into them. Urns may take a variety of shapes, depending on the piece of wood. Because he works with wood from fallen trees or from those that have been taken down due to disease or for other purposes, each one is unique. His process involved a three-way conversation of sorts — between himself, the family and the wood.

“In the past several years,” he says, “I have had the privilege to work with families who have found comfort and a sense of peace as they joined with me in the creation of a one-of-a-kind casket or urn. I have found that for families facing a loved one’s death, designing a vessel for that final passage can be a powerful and healing part of the process.

“I believe that acknowledging that our bodies will return to the earth after death, that we will become one with nature, is part of the spiritual journey to an acceptance of our own mortality.”

* This article is reprinted, with permission, from Milestones, a publication of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. For more information, email milestonesnews@pcaphl.org.