A dying trade

October 07, 1995|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

He is not a coroner.

He never considered the priesthood. He hasn't even thought about applying for an embalmer's license. But when a person dies and the body needs to be shipped back to Italy, Baltimore funeral directors say their first call is often to Millard Hart.

Mr. Hart, a 68-year-old Hamilton resident and woodworker, is best known for one specialty. He's the last man in the city who custom-makes the unique wood boxes Italy requires for the shipment of the dead, funeral directors say.

"I don't know who else to call but Millard," says Charles S. Zannino of the Zannino Funeral Home in East Baltimore. "He's something else. You ask him for these exact dimensions, and whatever it is, he does it perfect."

"If something happened to him," says Frank Della Noce, a funeral home owner in Little Italy, "I think I'd have to order these boxes from some outfit out of Philly."

AWhile funeral directors praise his handiwork, Mr. Hart -- who has retained most of his now white hair and all of his ornery temperament -- thinks little of his craft. He says that any woodworker worth his sawdust could reproduce his work simply by looking at it. And he takes no interest in the people who occupy his boxes, which must be big enough to contain the entire casket.

"I don't care what they put in these boxes, as long as they pay me," says Mr. Hart, who estimates that he has made three dozen boxes over the past two decades. "Because of the size, it's a little clumsy for one person to make, but it's not hard work."

That may be, but funeral directors appreciate Mr. Hart because he is the one constant in the most Byzantine procedure in the mortuary business -- shipping a body to Italy.

While some countries have recently made it easier to transport human remains, Italy's rules still force funeral homes to keep bodies for as long as two weeks before they can be shipped, funeral directors say.

Most countries require bodies and caskets to be transported in a standard-issue metal sealed container that fits easily into the cardboard trays airlines use for human remains cargo. But the Italian government -- citing tradition and the United States' unwillingness to sign treaties to standardize shipping regulations across nations -- insists on the same zinc-lined, wood boxes used before the era of jet travel.

These boxes must be made of wooden boards, preferably a heavy pine, that are 1 1/2 inches thick, Italian officials say. Nails may not be used in constructing the box; instead, Italy requires that the edges be painstakingly fashioned into dovetails that can be glued together.

At 18-inch intervals along the box, Mr. Hart must also create grooves to accommodate the steel bands that the Italian government requires to go round the box. Three handles must be placed on each side, though airline cargo employees usually need a forklift to carry one of the boxes.

Mr. Hart says he was first asked to make one of the boxes in 1971, but neither he nor anyone else seems to remember exactly when he became the last Italian-funeral-box-maker in Baltimore.

Francesco Legaluppi, the Italian consul for Baltimore, says casket companies used to make the boxes. But "lately, we've found the only way to get one is to have a carpenter make it to size," he says.

For years Mr. Hart used a simpler design -- with 3/4 -inch-thick plywood and no dovetailed corners -- before an Italian official cornered him at a funeral home a few years ago and told him he needed to conform to regulations. Now, a woodworking job that once took four hours requires almost two days and costs $200 more, Mr. Hart says.

"And you need a crane to pick it up," he says. "I do manage to roll it over, but it doesn't have anything in it when I do it." With body and casket inside, the boxes generally weigh 500 pounds.

Mr. Hart was born in South Baltimore, but he was raised in the western part of the city. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade, though he did return to a vocational institute at the corner of Howard and Centre streets to learn woodworking.

These are choices he says he now regrets.

"If I had had enough sense to work some place with benefits and a pension, I wouldn't spend any time building these boxes," he says. "I would never pick up a damn hammer again."

Mr. Hart, who is married with two grown children, bounced between woodworking jobs, often quitting "because I couldn't stand my bosses." He says he occasionally thought of a life on the water (his father was a tugboat captain), but his family wanted him to try something else.

For a time, he shared a woodworking business with a partner and from 1976 to 1986 he had his own shop. Now, he builds Italian boxes and other items with woodworking equipment he keeps in the basement of his home in the 3100 block of White Ave.

He doesn't mind making the boxes, he says, but does it only because he needs the money to supplement his Social Security income and fix up his kitchen. If he can ever finish that renovation, Mr. Hart may hang up his tools.

"It may be that I've made the last one of these boxes I'll ever make," he says, "and that's just fine by me."

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