John Sword: Serving Those Who Served

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The solemn occasion of a military funeral service is a time of great honor, dignity and respect for one who has served their country. Though a great deal of detail and tradition go into a veteran’s ceremony, one detail caught Idaho artist John Sword’s eye and he set out to change it. After experiencing his own personal losses and attending several inurnment ceremonies, he saw a need and started developing a concept for wooden ceremonial urns.

“At a military service, the bugles play taps, the guns go off; it’s a very moving ceremony,” he said. “But all of this is going on over top of a black plastic box. It seemed like there should be something nicer, more special.”

Photo: John Sword in one of the Maloof-inspired wooden chairs he made.

EVERLASTING TREE

In 2009, John and his wife, Heidi Egerman, launched Everlasting Tree, creating and marketing one-of-a-kind boxes and cremation urns. They sell to the general public on Etsy and their website everlastingtree.com, but John estimates that he has made “around 40” ceremonial urns for veterans, which he gives to military cemeteries and veterans organizations through the Veterans Administration. He’s not certain of that number because they don’t inventory the ones for veterans. “We always donate those. We will never sell them,” John said. “I want these families who have already sacrificed so much to be able to have something nice to hold their loved ones’ remains during their ceremony and something that could be reused by many veterans’ families.”

As John explains it, cremation ashes are typically placed into a secure sealed bag and then into a black plastic box for the ceremony. “The boxes from the funeral home are about 200 cubic inches; that seems to be the industry standard,” he said. The wooden boxes John makes—with their highly figured grain patterns and hand-rubbed finish— allow the black boxes to fit down inside of them. He adds a nylon strap inside, which can be used to lift up the contents of the wooden boxes.

Photo: Maple Memorial Urn by Everlasting Tree

Walnut Memorial Urn

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Paduak Memorial Urn

View All Padauk

MILITARY HONORS

What makes a veteran’s urn different than any other urn? Though all of John’s work features fluid artistic lines and curves, magnificent craftsmanship and stunning wood grain, two things in particular are exclusive to the veterans’ design. Each has a bronze leaf replica on the lid, which is a casting of an actual leaf collected at Arlington National Cemetery. The leaves are made by Valley Bronze of Oregon, a company with an impressive history of monumental and ornamental metal projects, including the cast wreaths and stars at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the bronze frames that hold founding documents (Declaration of Independence, US Constitution and the Bill of Rights) at the National Archives Building in D.C.

The second unique feature of the veterans’ urns is the soil that is incorporated into the bases. Numerous holes are drilled in the base of the urn and are plugged with a brass cap. Soil or sand from a battlefield like Omaha Beach or Pearl Harbor is placed there “to represent the battlegrounds where veterans fought and so many lost their lives,” John said.  

Bronze leaf replica from actual leaf found at Arlington

Drilled holes in the base hold sand from battlefields like Pearl Harbor and Omaha Beach

WASP RECOGNITION

Watching the national news one evening, John learned about a family’s efforts to obtain permission for Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) Elaine Harmon to be interred at Arlington. Elaine and the other WASPs were a select few (less than 2,000) who served their country during WWII by flying non-combat military aircraft to free up the male pilots for combat but were subsequently denied many veterans benefits.

Determined to see Elaine get the recognition and proper interment she and her comrades deserved, the family fought a technicality by going to Congress and eventually getting a bill passed. During the television broadcast of the story, John’s eye was once again drawn to a black plastic box which was sitting on a closet shelf during the interview at the Harmon’s home. Knowing he could give this veteran something more special, he contacted Elaine’s family and offered to design a special urn for the ceremony

Not only did John provide the Harmons with a beautiful ceremonial urn, he created matching memorial vases for Elaine’s four children. He chose padauk, a beautiful, strong wood to represent the toughness, strength and stability required of the WASP pilots. The base of the urn held sand from Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where the WASPs trained, and Nellis Air Force Base, where Elaine was stationed. Her wings were secured to the personalized marker on the front.

John and Heidi were honored to attend the ceremony at Arlington in September 2016. “It was really a big deal, especially after what the family had to do in order to obtain permission,” John said. “The national news covered it.”

Photo: The US Air Force Honor Guard carries the remains of World War II pilot Elaine Harmon during services September 7, 2016, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

JOINING FORCES

John later created and donated a one-of-a-kind wooden urn for other WASP inurnment ceremonies. The base includes sand from their training grounds, Avenger Field, as Elaine’s did. In order to give the families a memento following a service, female volunteers at the Boise Woodcraft store turned pens from the same tree as the urn.

The Boise store already supports the military in a big way with Woodcraft’s Turn for Troops program, which has sent nearly 160,000 wooden pens in total to US servicemen and women on active duty or recovering in rehabilitation centers in 14 years. Boise employees and volunteers have submitted more than 15,000 pens in that time, consistently one of the top donating stores.

Now that store is also pitching in to help support John’s work with the veterans urns by donating the matching pens. Monte Eldfrick, owner of the Boise store, puts it this way, “This is just honoring our veterans in a different way.” The card that is provided with each pen includes a note that reads, “This pen is handmade by a fellow Veteran or proud Patriot to honor the service and sacrifice of your loved one’s dedication to preserve our nation’s freedom and liberty. The pen has been assembled using the natural materials of the Everlasting Tree American Veterans Ceremonial Urn.”

Boise Woodcraft provides turns wooden pens made from leftover wood from the urns
The card provided by Idaho State Veterans Cemetary when giving pens to veterans' families

SPECIAL HONORS

In addition to the WASP design, John has created Medal of Honor and Purple Heart ceremonial urns. The family of retired Army Command Sergeant Major Lee Brown Jr. worked with John to incorporate Brown’s Purple Heart medal that he received in Vietnam, pictured here and in the bottom photo below at the ceremony.

To date, Everlasting Tree has donated veteran’s urns that have been used in several cemeteries, listed below. He has been honored to attend a number of ceremonies as well. 

·         Idaho State Veterans Cemetery, Boise, Idaho
·         Southern Nevada Veterans Cemetery, Las Vegas, Nevada
·         Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Fernley, Nevada
·         Washington State Veterans Cemetery, Spokane, Washington
·         Montana State Veterans Cemetery, Helena, Montana
·         Eastern Montana State Veterans Cemetery, Miles City, Montana
·         Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery, Missoula, Montana
·         Willamette National Cemetery, Portland, Oregon
·         Federal Veterans Cemeteries in the Pacific District

Serving one’s country in the US military is a noble and honorable profession, often without a lot of thanks. John’s dedication to honoring those who have served is one way of sending veterans to their final resting places with the respect they so rightly deserve. Thank you, veterans, and thank you, Everlasting Tree, for your outstanding patriotism.

Call or visit your local Woodcraft store to learn about the Turn for Troops program to show your thanks and appreciation to US service members. 

We hope youll be inspired!

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