Bert Harlow, woodworker and founder of the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, Massachusetts, made his own casket a few years ago. But he figured the pine box should get some use before he was nailed into it.
So in 2002, he loaned it out for a Fall River protest against the Iraq War. Members of a local church filled the casket with live peace doves, and then released them in a striking bit of street theater.
"It was a shock factor to some people," said Harlow.
But that was just the first bit of coffin agitprop. Harlow's casket has become a regular feature of lefty protests in southeastern New England.
In November of 2007, Harlow loaned out his bit of woodcraft to Fall River-based environmental activist group Green Futures for a demonstration against a project that has sparked widespread opposition in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island — the liquefied natural-gas (LNG) terminal that Weaver's Cove Energy and Hess LNG have proposed for Mount Hope Bay.
The activists staged a mock funeral. An undertaker dressed in black lead the procession. Protesters waved signs. A few construction workers working for the companies behind the proposal looked on.
"They were somewhat bemused," said Everett Castro, community affairs coordinator for Green Futures.
The funeral was an appropriate bit of stagecraft, Harlow said, given the potential for a deadly LNG explosion. "If you go to war, people die," he said. "If an LNG facility blows up, people die. It's a bearer of message."
A Vietnam War veteran, Harlow strings a large peace sign made out of lights in front of his door. Harlow said he yearns for a time when people made noise over issues of concern.
"People are now afraid of being criticized. There needs to be some civil disobedience," Harlow said.
But Castro said the casket must be used sparingly or risk losing its force. "I think the local papers are sick of seeing the coffin," he said.
For now, the casket sits in Castro's garage, awaiting its next assignment.
"It's sort of like Zorro," he said, "it just shows up."