While pre-planning his mother’s funeral in 2009, Tom Simpson wanted to pay tribute to her First Nations heritage with a red cedar casket. But he couldn’t find a supplier on Vancouver Island. A year later Tom, a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, suffered a stroke. While recuperating he started a business to fill a need – Cedar Journeys Caskets.
“I began this as something therapeutic, something to do and to contribute to my stroke recovery, both emotionally and physically: it grew from the concept that I wished had been available for my mom – a tribute to heritage and life lived in a casket painted with traditional Coast Salish artwork,” Simpson explains.
Simpson wanted to work with red cedar because of its historical importance to the peoples of the coast. A former logger, he taught himself to create and assemble burial caskets, making 30 to 36 a year. So far he has created a job for himself and a part time apprentice.
Demand is increasing mainly through word of mouth. Simpson now has help with his online presence from Tom Sewid, who runs a website to promote indigenous tourism and businesses. Sewid also volunteered to paint a casket in traditional orca design.
Simpson has both pre-painted and unpainted caskets at his Nanaimo workshop. Families often custom paint caskets for their loved ones with their own family crests or personal images. Others are ordered and shipped throughout the province.
“The lengths families will go to in order to pay tribute to their loved ones is amazing,” Simpson says.
Simpson found the right partner in Sandy Poelvoorde, owner of Boyd’s Funeral Services in Campbell River. Boyd’s is the only funeral home in B.C. with one of Simpson’s caskets on display.
“She’s unusual on the Island, because she sells out of her shop without raising the price of my caskets. She’s willing to work with my affordability model to make these available to First Nations.”
The increased interest in the caskets has led to collaboration with local artists. Simpson took on an apprentice to help with painting. He says the business has attracted interest from potential partners, but it needs to be a good fit to shift from being a sole proprietor.
His advice for would be entrepreneurs is simple. “Be passionate and believe in yourself. Anything can happen.”