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Burial rituals: Katrina Brees leads workshops about designing caskets


The Journal

MARTINSBURG, W.Va.  — Katrina Brees wants to put the fun in funeral.

“I want to look at burial rituals to see if they can serve us better,” Brees said in a recent interview. “What is its purpose? Is the ritual still functioning for us? The funeral is the last impression we have of someone. It should be joyous.”

Katrina Brees sizes up a small tree to use as a support for a burial casket in the foothills of North Mountain Friday afternoon. (Journal photo by Ron Agnir)

Brees starting thinking about funerals — and she has given the subject a lot of thought — when she was living in New Orleans and was exposed to the so-called Jazz Funeral. With its roots in African culture, the New Orleans Jazz Funeral originally celebrated the death of a family member and the freedom from slavery. It has since become a New Orleans’ icon and tourist attraction, while still celebrating the lives of the city’s residents.

The Jazz Funeral has been featured in many movies and television shows, depicting a brass band marching behind a hearse, often horse-driven, playing somber dirges and hymns. After the burial, the band breaks into upbeat music and dancers join the procession twirling parasols and handkerchiefs.

“The New Orleans funerals were more functional, healing the community and celebrating the legacy of loved one’s lives,” Brees said.

While in New Orleans, she began making caskets creatively decorated in different motifs, such as a seascape.

For the past few weeks, she has been staying at the North Mountain Residency, which is located off Tuscarora Pike overlooking Back Creek Valley on 400 acres of old orchard and woods. It is a secluded place for creative people practicing a wide variety of arts and crafts.

John Labovitz is the owner and operator of North Mountain Residency. Susanna Battin is the program director.

At the North Mountain Residency, Brees has been creating fabric caskets made with soft materials that she quilts and sews to form the coffin.

“The goal is to build caskets with your own textiles,” she said. “The fabric caskets can be created quickly and inexpensively. I’m working on a pattern that I plan to release.”

In conjunction with her stay at the North Mountain Residency, she has had an exhibit of her work on display at the Phaze 2 Gallery at Shepherd University titled “Fantastic Casket: Undertaking a Fresh Approach to Death.” She will be hosting an interactive a workshop there at 1 p.m. Thursday followed by a reception from 4-7 p.m.

For more information and to reserve a space in the workshop, contact Evan Boggess at [email protected].

Brees also will conduct a special “Meet the Artist” workshop sponsored by the Berkeley Arts council at its gallery, the Berkeley Art Works, from 6-8:30 p.m. Friday. The gallery is located at 116 N. Queen St., Martinsburg.

For more information, call 304-620-7277 or go to

During her workshops, Brees presents the history of burial rituals and different options, such as designing and building art-based caskets.

“I want to empower others,” Brees said. “My goal is economic freedom for families who can’t afford caskets. They can choose to participate in the capitalist funeral industry or not. Let people make the choice. They should look for options. They may not realize they have options. And I want to create the most fantastic caskets.”

For more information about Brees, go to

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