Life and Death (Mostly Life)
The reaping isn’t so grim at Bryan and Dusty Schoening’s Coffinwood, where the custom coffins, hearses, and other deathly touches are really about being more alive
The first questions are always why. Why make custom coffins? Why collect hearses? Why build a pet cemetery in front of your house? Why do it in Pahrump, a desert outpost best known for its casinos and brothels?
The cynical observer might assume that the inspiration behind Bryan and Dusty Schoening’s business, Coffin It Up, and their home, fittingly called Coffinwood, is something sinister. This was the case with one man who, after hearing about Coffinwood, drove all the way from Texas to tell the couple how sacrilegious their business was.
“He was ready to pick a fight,” Dusty says. “And then we gave him a tour, we answered all his questions, we invited him in. And then he said, ‘I am very sorry. I had a very bad preformed opinion about you guys.’”
Many visitors to Coffinwood take a similar emotional journey — minus the rage-fueled road trip from Texas — when experiencing the place for the first time. Located on the way to Death Valley National Park, Coffinwood occupies a patch of dusty land with views of the snowy Spring Mountains. It’s isolated from the Walmart, gas stations, and abandoned castle-themed strip club in the center of town. Beyond the “Coffinwood” sign at the gate, you can see a tidy pet cemetery, white coffins on the porch of a modest home, and 11 hearses glinting in the sun. Maybe it’s the middle-of-nowhere location, maybe it’s all the reminders of death, but it’s easy to see why some people react with fear. However, what’s behind that gate isn’t the start of a horror movie; it’s something even more surprising: a place that feels very much alive.
On a warm day in late winter, Bryan and Dusty hold hands as they make their way through the headstones and hearses in their front yard. Dusty has waist-length silver hair and bright eyes that light up when she talks about her gardens of black flowers that will soon bloom. Bryan has a quiet presence and an endearing habit of describing very specific and unusual hobbies in the way one might talk about a love of baseball or going to the movies (“I listen to a lot of haunted-house music,” he’ll later casually mention.).
Before the Schoenings started Coffin It Up, before they built Coffinwood, before they moved to Pahrump, they bonded over a love of animals and a shared interest in the macabre. They met in California at a protest against a circus that was under fire for elephant abuse. They spent the day demonstrating, then went to a Black Flag concert. Eventually, they married and settled in Oregon.
A carpenter by trade, Bryan built his first coffin years later at the request of his then teenage daughter, who wanted to jump out of one at a Halloween party.
“I found out with that first coffin that they just aren’t that easy to build,” Bryan says. “It’s not a casket. It’s not a four-sided box. It’s actually a six-sided hexagonal shape. I got pretty addicted to making those, and
I cut that one all by hand. We still have it.”
In 1997, two days after Christmas, Bryan’s parents and the family dog were killed by a drunk driver.
“Everyone has to experience one of those phone calls,” Bryan says. “It throws even the strongest mind into a tailspin. Then you get your parents’ possessions back, and the people who were supposed to have taken care of that stole rings. You find out about human frailty and how disagreeable people can be at times, and it’s an ugly thing. Then you go into the funeral homes and you have a car salesman, basically, who says, ‘Well, we know you can only afford this, but it’s your mom, doesn’t she deserve a little bit better than that?’”
“You’re grieving, you’re out of your mind, you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re saying,” Dusty says. “You’re just going to sign the papers and get it done because you have to deal with all these things you didn’t plan on.”
“And then you find out that the hearse is $500,” Bryan adds. “Oh, you want someone to speak at the funeral? That’s another charge. And charge after charge. It’s a money-making industry.” After presiding over his parents’ celebration of life, Bryan found an idea amidst the grief. He and Dusty created Coffin It Up in Oregon in 2000. In 2005, they moved to Pahrump.
“We used to always come here for vacation because we have a habit of living in cold places,” Dusty says. “Our birthdays are in February, so we would take our vacations from work and come to Death Valley for our birthday week. We decided that if we ever moved, we would live here.”
The two purchased a home in Pahrump, set up their business, and created Coffinwood. “We’ve always had something in our front yard no matter where we lived,” Bryan says. “We’ve always had a couple of headstones. You decorate for Halloween and never take it down.”
Since 2005, the property has grown to accommodate the hearses — several of which Dusty enjoys taking on occasional jaunts into Death Valley — as well as a host of coffin-shaped artifacts and a pet cemetery. One gravestone serves as a tribute to Stoney, an elephant that performed at the Luxor but died in 1994 as a result of neglect. Often, Bryan will make coffins for deceased cats, dogs, even fish. The property is also a place where living animals thrive. Coffinwood was certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, and is home to a large population of toads, desert iguanas, lizards, and a tortoise. At night, walkways are blackened with hatches of toads devouring bugs.
The heart of the operation is Bryan’s shop, where he creates all the bespoke coffin-themed items — including jewelry, purses, desk clocks, coffee tables, and luggage — along with actual coffins. Lately, many customers are more interested in coffin jewelry and grave-related paintings than full-sized coffins, so there is no average number of coffins that the couple can count on selling each year. These days, the industry has been shifting toward cremation, so Bryan has adapted by learning how to make coff-urns for holding cremains.
“I know how to calculate by the person’s size how big of a coff-urn I need to make,” Bryan says. “I make them out of recycled mahogany because we try to be environmentally conscious with everything that we do.”
Since establishing Coffin It Up in Pahrump, Bryan has built coffins for Jonathan Davis of Korn, Jeff Hanneman of Slayer, and a number of filmmakers, psychiatrists, and other folks who appreciate the artistry of coffins and coffin-shaped goods. Bryan especially likes working with obsidian. In his spare time, he paints.
“Every artist has a message that they’re trying to put out, and mine is to enjoy the day, to seize the day, as they say,” he says. “I like to remind people to treasure what they have at the moment.”
Margaret Meyer of Lubbock, Texas recently surprised her husband, Gerry, with one of Bryan’s custom-painted saw blades. At first glance, the image appears as a simple depiction of their home in Tucson, set against a glowing night sky. But if you look closer, you see a coffin on the moon’s surface and skeletal faces rising from the desert shadows. The gift came seven years after the couple visited Coffinwood in 2011.
“We were extremely impressed with both Dusty and Bryan when we met,” says Gerry, who kept in touch with them by email. “They go about their daily lives without pretense and are truly kind people.”
Gerry and Margaret hung the saw blade in their living room and consider it their most prized possession. “The coffin is acceptance of death, which leads to the acceptance of life,” Gerry says. “The coffin reminds us that we all share the same fate, so why not help our fellow travelers in this journey to the end instead of wasting our short existence on this Earth with anger and hate?”
Bryan and Dusty aren’t quite sure how most of their customers find them. They have a website, but they don’t advertise, aren’t on social media, and prefer flip-phones to smartphones. Early on in their time in Pahrump, they stopped by the town’s tourism board with brochures and were turned away.
“They looked at it and said, ‘I don’t think this is the kind of message we want to send. I don’t think this is a good representation of Pahrump,’” Dusty recalls. “So I’m like, all we have here is brothels and casinos, but we’re not desirable? They weren’t really about it, but that’s okay.”
Coffinwood may fly under the radar most of the year in Pahrump, but come Christmas, the home is a popular attraction. Each year, Bryan creates elaborate light displays set to a punk or metal soundtrack.
“We really don’t celebrate Christmas,” he says. “But I always try to make the Christmas decorations big because that’s when my parents got killed.”
After enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, locals will drive over to watch Bryan begin decorating. Once the holiday season is underway, they’ll return on cool desert evenings to see the spectacle. “We have people lined up on the street,” Dusty says. “They park their cars. They watch the lights. We had people dancing out there this past year.”
Outside of Christmastime, most of Coffinwood’s visitors come from out of state and out of the country. The site is featured in German and Italian tourism books, and is a popular destination for travelers with a predilection for seeking out strange attractions. Occasionally a Coffin It Up customer will order a custom coffin and then embark on a road trip to fetch it. Others stop by just to see the property.
“We have no less than five people a day take pictures under the Coffinwood sign,” Dusty says. “For the area, that’s a lot of people. We have people come in motor homes. We have people come dressed up like they know they’re coming here. We’ve had gypsies, gothic people doing photo shoots.”
Coffinwood isn’t just a tourist destination for people who are fascinated by death; it’s also a place for couples beginning a life together. After a pair of self-described vampires from Las Vegas asked Bryan to marry them at a Pahrump funeral home, the phone started ringing. A surprising number of couples were eager to get married by a coffin-maker.
“Per Pahrump, you can only do so many weddings,” Dusty says. “They didn’t want it to turn into a Vegas thing, so they said we had to be a church to perform more than three weddings a year.” In 2005, Bryan and Dusty began the six-month process of establishing Coffinwood as a church. They also built a coffin-shaped gazebo for weddings. In 2006, the Church of the Coffin was legally certified by the State of Nevada.
“They sent people out here and checked us out because they thought we were something nefarious that they didn’t want a part of,” Dusty says. “They found out that we were the opposite of that, so they gave us our license. Now Bryan is a minister and the church is legal.”
The Church of the Coffin performs a handful of weddings a year. Vow renewals are more popular. Prior to the legalization of gay marriage, their church was the site of numerous commitment ceremonies. “It’s a lot of fun,” Bryan says. “A lot of tears.”
Since the birth of Coffinwood, it’s become a place where death isn’t an abstract, scary thing that looms in the future, but a very real, tangible, six-sided object made out of mahogany that serves as a reminder to live. For the Schoenings, that’s what Coffin It Up and Coffinwood are about, and if the individuals who purchase coffins from them are any indication, they’re not alone.
Sitting in her darkened living room, surrounded by life-size skeletons that wait like a congregation in the pews of a church, Dusty remembers a Pahrump man who drove to Coffinwood one day, laid on the floor, and said, “Measure me.”
With the care of a craftsman, Bryan got his exact dimensions and listened as the man described the design he imagined for the vessel that would carry him to the afterlife. When the appointment was over, the man left, relieved and smiling.
“He was just so happy to take it home and have it,” Dusty says. “Knowing that when the time came, he would be able to be sent off in what he wanted. Exactly, precisely what he wanted.”