Navajo Casket Maker Tobie Beneli
By Bill Donovan, Special to the Navajo Times, Window Rock, AZ
When Tobie Beneli first got the idea 12 years ago to go into business making burial caskets, he decided he needed to get some advice before taking the plunge.
So he asked two Navajo medicine men for their opinions.
After considering the question, one told him it was all right if done for the right reason.
"Make sure that you are doing it to help your people," the medicine man told Beneli, who said his primary goal has been to help his people, not to see how much money he could make.
The other medicine man, he said, told him to remember the old ways and spoke of how Navajo weavers would make sure to include a mistake in each rug so that spirits would not be tempted to stay in it.
He also took this to heart and said there are small flaws in every casket he makes.
Back when he started, the idea of a traditional Navajo making caskets attracted attention. After all, from the day they can understand the words, traditional
Navajos are told by their parents, grandparents and relatives to avoid anything to do with death.
In the Navajo way, death, though part of the cycle of life, is attended by negative energy that can harm not only to your life but the lives of your loved ones.
But the words of the Navajo medicine men tempered those teachings and encouraged Beneli. He and his wife Lin set up shop in the comforting shadow of
Dibé Nitsaa (Mount Hesperus), the sacred mountain of the north.
Many thousands of caskets later, Summit Ridge Wood Design continues to thrive.
In his early years, Beneli found himself at war with funeral directors in the Four Corners area who were upset at his comments about greed in the funeral business.
Eventually the two sides made peace and today he provides his uniquely Native American caskets to 30 funeral homes throughout the Southwest as well as to hundreds of individuals.
But he still spends a lot of time urging people who come to him to make sure they know their rights when they go to a funeral home. That way, they can avoid spending more than they can afford, and be comfortable with the way their loved ones are being treated.
"During a time of tragedy, families can be financially and emotionally vulnerable to exploitation," Beneli said. "We believe there is a great need for people to educate themselves and their loved ones about their options and to communicate their desires regarding arrangements."
He recommends the Web site http://www.funerals.org which contains detailed information on consumer rights. Beneli said he's also happy to answer questions.
He said staff members at Indian centers could play a vital role in making sure that Native families know their rights and what options are available to them when they visit a mortuary.
Last week, at a public forum in Cortez, Colo., sponsored by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, Beneli discussed the need to make sure Natives understand their rights.
Because of Navajo beliefs about death, Beneli said he's not able to "talk to a majority of the Navajo people about this and you can't really present it at chapter meetings."
Later he expanded on his comments, saying, "Every single Navajo family that comes to us . . . doesn't know they even have rights."
He told of a recent case where a deceased member of a Navajo family was taken to a mortuary. The family came to him for a casket, worried about how much the funeral home would charge.
Beneli explained that they were not required to leave the body of their loved one at a funeral home. It's legal for the next of kin to take possession and handle interment themselves - in fact, the practice is growing in popularity in some areas of the U.S. including New Mexico.
But when this family went back to the funeral home, he said, they were told they couldn't take the body. The police were finally called and affirmed the family's right to take their loved one's body.
"That's the way (the Navajo people) used to do it," Beneli said, adding that they still can do so if they choose.
And there's no law that says you have to spend a lot of money on your loved one's funeral, especially if you don't money to spend, he said.
However, the funeral industry in Colorado is trying to get a law passed requiring people to go to a funeral director to bury their loved ones, he said. If it passes, people will lose a lot of the freedom to have the type of funeral they want, he said.
The average funeral now costs more than $7,000, which Beneli noted is beyond the ability of many Navajo families.
Before he started making caskets, he made cabinets and furniture - which he still does. To help his family, which needed a casket for his cousin, he decided to help them save money and made it himself.
Today, he makes 500 to 600 caskets a year, and sells them at prices ranging from $1,200 to $2,600.
Most are made of cedar and have laser-engraved artwork on the lid. Beneli offers over two dozen laser designs based on Native themes, including scenes from traditional Navajo life. Other designs include landscapes, cowboys, nature, military and religious motifs.
Usually the lining is made from Pendleton blankets, but this is optional and the family can substitute a non-patterned lining to save money.
Beneli said he also offers a casket kit with pre-cut components that people can assemble themselves at significant savings.
He said when he first started, he offered families a chance to pay for the caskets in installments but after losing more than $20,000 from people who reneged and quit paying, he had to stop the practice.
Most of his caskets are sold in the Four Corners area where Beneli has relationships with local funeral directors. He said he stopped supplying funeral homes in Flagstaff, however, because of their high markup.
He also gets a lot of requests from Natives throughout the country and has shipped caskets to Texas, California, Minnesota, Virginia and Louisiana.
While caskets make up 80 percent of his business, Beneli and his nine employees make a range of other products, including cabinets and cores for ScottyBob Skis.
Over the years, nine competing companies have started in and around Dolores, Colo., where Beneli gets his mail. None have lasted more than a few years, he said.
Beneli said the reason is easy to explain: "They were in it only for the money."
Information: http://www.nativecaskets.com or Tobie Beneli, 970-882-7894, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Submitted by Sheri Awi Anida Waya Burnett