Upholsterer reflects on years of closing casketsOctober 23, 2019
By ALLEN LAMAN
The one that bothered Kevin Fleck the most was the little boy.
Like all of the beds he has made for Abbey Caskets in Saint Meinrad, the tulip poplar hardwood coffin was shaped like a boat: jaunting to a narrow head, widening at the shoulders and tapering into a square at the feet.
A terminally ill child who never got to experience the joys of graduating high school, or finding the love of his life, or starting a family, would soon be laid to rest in this wooden box. Kevin’s hands would be among the last to touch it.
He has upholstered the interiors of nearly 2,000 monastic-style coffins for the nearby company. Like always, in the case of this soul lost to soon, it was his job to make sure it was made well.
“I really struggled with that,” said Kevin, who works as an analyst in the information security section of the IT department at Kimball Electronics.
“All along, I’m thinking [of] old people that no longer have a quality of life and they’re ready to pass, and all of that,” he said. “And then when you get to a 10-year-old that’s supposed to have so much life to live yet ... It was very difficult.”
Kevin, 60, puts the finishing touches on 100 caskets a year. It’s a craft that connects him to his past, his present and the bookends of thousands of lives.
He started working for the nearby company on the side in the late-1990s, and he admitted that the first coffins he upholstered were “a mind trip.” A psychologist could put better words to that feeling, he’s sure.
Kevin chose to approach the process with a careful mindset.
“I had to keep telling myself that this is a box,” he recalled. “There’s a need for this, and I’m filling that need.”
It was still hard, of course. Two decades later, it’s become easier.
Abbey Caskets sells caskets and coffins that fall largely into two design groups. One is a conventional rectangle. The other, the kind Kevin specializes in, is hexagonal. He is the only person who upholsters that style for the company.
“It’s unique,” Kevin said of the shape. “It’s special. They’re all handcrafted, but it does give me a sense of pride to be involved in something as special as that one.”
Kevin’s father owned an upholstery business, and Kevin grew up in the shop. He stumbled back into the industry by accident later in life when a friend came to him for reupholstery work needed on a chair. Once it was complete, Kevin’s buddy pointed another pal his way.
Good reviews continued to spread. Before Kevin knew it, he had his own budding operation. He always loves starting with nothing other than an image or concept and bringing it to life. His creations feel like they are part of him.
Eventually, he repaired and reupholstered furniture for monks and brothers living at the Saint Meinrad Archabbey. That led him to Abbey Caskets, who in the late 1990s, was struggling to stitch the fabric inside their line of purchasable, monastic-inspired caskets. A while after upholstering several prototypes, the company offered him a steady contracted production job.
The beauty of the caskets, Kevin said, is their simplicity. They are designed after the very caskets used by the monks at the archabbey, and the simple design and their lack of complexity “signifies the monastic lifestyle and the monastic ideal,” reads the company’s website. Each high quality casket is built from various hardwoods in a workshop by local craftsmen.
According to the Catholic faith, when Jesus died, his body was wrapped in muslin cloth and put in a tomb before His resurrection. Falling in line with this, the interior of the locally manufactured monastic caskets are upholstered with the same material.
“A lot of people probably don’t realize, but there’s that symbolism in that,” Kevin explained.
The containers are already cut and constructed by local craftsmen at Abbey Caskets before Kevin begins his work. He cuts and sews the cloth from the basement of his Ferdinand home before taking it to Hurst Custom Cabinets in Huntingburg to install inside the boxes. Foam goes in first, and a nail-gun-like-device tacks up the fabric.
His wife, Kim, has been instrumental in this physical process for 15 years. She calls herself Kevin’s gopher, checking his work and helping to maneuver the boxes around the workshop, among other duties.
When they started working together, the deal was that Kim would lend a hand and Kevin would treat her once the work was done.
“I’m cheap help,” she said with a smile. “I do it for free, and then a good meal every once in a while. He takes me out.”
Even if it doesn’t always end with a date, the two cherish the time they spend working together. It gives them a chance to talk about their days and their lives.
In addition to caskets, Kevin does furniture repairs for Bargain Barn. He’s also game to “piddle with things that present a challenge,” he said, and his resume includes upholstery work for Ferdinand’s world-renowned table maker Keith Fritz.
When Kevin tells people about his side hustle, they are surprised. But after explaining it to them, they understand. Someone has to do the work.
And Kevin does it with meticulousness and love.
“He does great quality work,” said Jennifer Keller, director of Abbey Caskets. “And it’s always nice to work with someone who takes as much pride in their work as what we do in the products that we sell.”
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