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A Decor Piece Morticia Would Die For

At the suggestion of a Boyle Heights artisan, a girl's ghoulish wish is happily realized.

October 31, 2003|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

As a casket maker, Joey Conzevoy gets strange requests.

He covered a coffin with fake bear fur to please an elderly woman's next of kin. He made a casket with a top that was flat enough to dance on for a dream sequence in the Emmy-winning TV series "Six Feet Under." A Pasadena homeowner wanted a casket coffee table, and the TV series "Kingpin" needed a coffin with a secret drawer in which the show's bereaved drug traffickers cached their weapons.

But 11-year-old Naomi Okada's request was among the most bizarre. The Henderson, Nev., resident asked Conzevoy to make her a bed from a coffin.

It was really her mother's idea. Naomi is a devotee of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and when she and her mother decided to redecorate the sixth-grader's bedroom, they chose to banish the beige and bring on the Goth.

Clearly, Naomi, who thinks black when she thinks nail polish, is more of an Anne Rice girl than a Lizzie McGuire one.

"We thought Spike's crypt, minus the cobwebs," said Sue Okada, Naomi's mother, alluding to one of Buffy's undead beaux.

Okada found ABC Caskets on the Internet and brought Naomi to the factory and showroom in Boyle Heights, where Joey Conzevoy's grandfather began making wooden caskets in 1933.

Naomi knew just what she wanted -- a classic black coffin, with red interior, that might have sheltered Bela Lugosi's Dracula. The model she chose is made of poplar. It tapers toward the foot, in a style referred to in the coffin trade as a "toe-pincher."

But Conzevoy, 57, didn't like the idea of a child, however gleefully ghoulish, sleeping in a coffin. So he persuaded Naomi to forget snoozing and think storage.

"Why don't we make you a 'hopeless chest'?" he proposed.

Mother and daughter loved the idea.

"A bed wouldn't have worked because I flop around a lot, and it would have to be really wide to be comfy," Naomi said. But, she added: "I want to be able to play in it some."

ABC -- which stands for A Better Casket -- is one of the few companies in the Western U.S. that still makes wooden caskets to order. Its specialties include caskets that meet standards set by Jewish law -- made of wood, not metal, and without nails or animal-based glues. Holes are sometimes drilled into the bottoms of such caskets to bring the body closer to the earth, in the spirit of "dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return."

But in making Naomi's hopeless chest, Conzevoy thought only about what would be fun for a little girl, albeit one with a taste for the macabre. He gave the outside of the 6-foot coffin a matte finish for an antique effect, and polished the inside of the lid so it would function almost like a mirror. And, knowing that Naomi was driving in from Nevada this week to pick it up, he tucked a winsome vampire and cute little witch doll inside.

Naomi arrived at the factory after a 4 1/2-hour drive. She was dressed, as she is wont to be, all in black -- short black top, black lace-up pants and black running shoes, set off with a silver necklace studded with little skulls and crossbones.

Naomi made it clear, however, that she is no Goth, at least not in the nihilistic, death-obsessed sense.

"I like dressing in it, but I'm not into 'Life is terrible,' " she said. "I'm a happy girl."

When her new hopeless chest was opened, Naomi was temporarily speechless -- not the precocious preteen's ordinary state. She grinned, unselfconsciously revealing the braces on her teeth.

"Wow," she finally said, her smile as wide as a jack-o'-lantern's.

Sue Okada said she had bought the unusual $1,700 gift for her daughter because Naomi is "such a great kid."

In public school, she was a straight-A student who sometimes made up homework assignments to challenge herself. Now in private school in Henderson, she continues to get excellent grades, loves science and math and runs on the school's cross-country team.

She proudly described herself as "a nerd at school" and said: "I've wanted to be a paleontologist since I was 2 years old."

She likes to read. Needless to say, Stephen King is a favorite.

"And I like horror movies, but not the gross ones."

At her Halloween party tonight, Naomi plans to pop out of her new casket and surprise her guests.

Some of her friends are a little envious: "They were saying, 'Why won't my mom let me have something like that?' "

More to the point, why did Naomi's mother let her have a coffin, however playfully deployed?

"Some of my friends have said, 'How can you do this? Isn't it a little morbid?' " Sue Okada said.

In fact, Naomi has faced considerable loss recently, her mother said. Last year, she lost her maternal grandfather, and her father died in April. Okada thinks her daughter's interest in the macabre, including the coffin, is her way of coping.

"If she had taken it in a morbid manner, I would have taken the money I spent on this and spent it on therapy," Okada said. "If it's her way of thumbing her nose at death and saying, 'OK, you've hurt me, but you won't conquer me,' more power to her."

"And," said Naomi, glancing at her new piece of funereal furniture, "it looks really cool."

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