Julie Cohen's work reflects her core beliefs.
The Pleasant Hill carpenter's wood scraps do not go to waste. Shavings end up as mulch or in a chicken coop. Blocks of wood are found on Boy Scout birdhouses or in school art classes.
"It's in that (vein) of what do you do with what you have and then put it to good use, and that includes your inclinations," she says, "and mine is to cut wood."
And, her Jewish faith is steeped in a belief of honoring the dead and comforting the mourning.
While she says she's not "religiously green," Cohen has discovered a niche for her woodworking that reflects her values. She builds plain wooden caskets that will biodegrade, with three holes cut in the bottom to give the deceased contact with the earth.
"It really drives home the finality. That's where we're returning," she says. "We're not fooling ourselves."
The adherence to kosher practices includes using 100 percent cotton rope. The panels are connected with handcrafted, dovetail joiners. Edible walnut oil is brushed on, bringing out the natural grain of the renewable pine or recycled redwood. There is an absence of metal, glue and animal products.
"She investigated every aspect of what constitutes a green casket," says Rabbi Stuart Kelman, dean of the Gamliel Institute, an online "center for studying, training and advocacy concerning Jewish end-of-life practices," the website states.
"She's able to provide comfort, with their knowing that a loved one is being enveloped by nature."
It is a way of burying the dead that has been part of the Jewish tradition for centuries, states Jay Lewis, funeral director of the nonprofit Sinai Memorial Chapel in Lafayette.
"Julie has come up with a casket design using materials that don't have any lasting harm on the environment," says Lewis, who also oversees Sinai's cemetery, Gan Shalom, on Bear Creek Road in Briones. "People like that they're handmade. It's not done on some conveyor belt ... She takes pride in her craftsmanship and the materials she uses."
Cohen's journey to making caskets as a means of honoring the deceased and comforting the survivors had originated when Kelman commissioned her 15 years ago to make low-standing, wooden Shiva stools to be used by mourners at a Berkeley synagogue.
Cohen is accustomed to working and learning from the ground up, from her initial working with hand tools, to her 10 years spent in construction, suspended on exterior scaffolding, working on 45-story skyscrapers.
She discovered a love of making things with her hands as a girl growing up in Cleveland, lobbying to get into high school wood shop.
Her longtime avocation and natural inclination are now "imbued with meaning (and humility)," she says.
"There's always this underlying consciousness of the person who's going to be using this, knowing this casket I'm building is going to be right for the deceased (and their loved ones)," she adds.
Cohen's conviction recently became up close and personal when she met a kindred soul in Anastasia Chase, who last year had sought out Cohen to build her casket from a fallen redwood tree.
"Both were similar in their attitudes toward life," says Anastasia's husband, Doug Chase, characterizing the couple of meetings they had. "Julie was so taken with how we were going about this. We were just going about the business about getting (Anastasia's wishes for a green burial) to fruition."
Cohen took the matter to heart.
"Julie's definitely a perfectionist. It's a real personal nature for her. This is beyond a vocation," says Harry Greer, a longtime funeral director and owner of Alameda Funeral and Cremation Services that handled the arrangements.
"Some people have a calling and this is hers. This truly gave dignity to Anastasia," he added.
Chase had been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 2002 that 10 years later had turned malignant, metastatic and untreatable. The Oakland hills resident, with her "100 percent follow through," her husband describes, and indomitable spirit proceeded to make conscious choices about her final resting place.
Chase died peacefully March 22, at the age of 65. Her casket, made to her specifications, was lined on the bottom with wine corks and she was shrouded in linen gauze. The metal zipper had been cut off the cotton pillow. Consistent with green burial, there was no embalming and there is no cement vault or liner.
"Anastasia was someone who would never impose on people and she took it one step further, to not impose on the earth," says Chase, who described his wife's journey and personal integrity as "a beautiful story that needs to be told."
"Julie was an integral part of this whole thing. She was so caring, so loving," says Chase.
The couple had selected a double, green burial plot replete with wildflowers and a brook in Sebastopol, where a redwood sapling will soon be planted. Chase's wife is the first to be buried in the new section of the Pleasant Hills Memorial Park. He says Cohen has agreed to build his casket when it's time.
"It was one of the proudest moments of my life, to see all this come together," says Chase, adding that a few other members of the Greek Orthodox Church are now pondering alternative burials.