Super Subcultures

These Elderly DIY-ers Came to Peace With Death — By Crafting Their Own Coffins

Here’s what happens when a group of merrily macabre New Zealanders decides to go out in style.

These Elderly DIY-ers Came to Peace With Death — By Crafting Their Own Coffins

When Davo was a boy growing up in Rotorua, New Zealand, he always wanted to have his own Go Kart. But his childhood dream of zipping around a track in his miniature racing car, and maybe one day becoming a world-famous Formula 1 driver, was never realized. However, if Davo couldn’t have a Go Kart in life, he decided he would have one in death, and he was in the right town to make it happen.

At barely forty years old, with two young daughters, the professional chef was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Davo’s coffin, painted in camouflage, had four wheels with black tires and silver hubcaps, an intricately carved grill, a steering wheel, a vanity license plate with his name in all caps, and the number 43 emblazoned on either side.

Katie Williams, 76, the white-haired, motherly founder of “the Coffin Club,” a non-profit organization that helps members design and construct their own coffins, recounts the story of Davo – of whom Williams requested that only his first name be used – with tenderness and modest satisfaction. He was, after all, one of the first and youngest members in the history of the club, and his casket is still among one of the collective’s most elaborate creations.

“He drew up exactly what he wanted,” Williams says. “Then a few of us got together and made it for him since his condition was deteriorating. We were all very pleased with the result. It looked incredible.”

Katie Williams, founder of the Coffin Club.
Katie Williams, founder of the Coffin Club.

Another Coffin Club favorite is Wes Hayward’s casket. The former trolley car driver rolled in a replica streetcar down the hill from his funeral service to a waiting hearse. “It was wonderful,” Williams recalls. “I just wished we’d also had a little bell and rung it.”

The Coffin Club was founded in 2010, a few years after Williams told a meeting of fellow students at the University of the Third Age – a global organization that offers study programs for seniors – that she wanted to build her own coffin. “God knows why I got up and did that,” she says, chuckling. “But when the meeting finished there were all these people lining up to talk to me. So I realized it wasn’t such a spooky idea; it was a sensible one.”

Williams’ own coffin now sits at home. It is, she happily concedes, a relatively simple creation, covered with burgundy wallpaper she found in a junk shop. It does have six handles, connected to a broomstick on each side.

“Because I’m a big girl,” she jokes. “And if I continue growing, as I have, I’ll need to have about ten pallbearers.”

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Now, every Wednesday morning, dozens of Rotoruans congregate at the club’s headquarters – a small converted warehouse – to build their own coffins, decorating them any way they wish, usually representing their life’s work, interests and obsessions. One man even put a pocket on the side of his casket for his wallet; he wanted to prove “you can take it with you.”

Members of the club build coffins in the workshop.
Members of the club build coffins in the workshop.

Since its first meeting, the Coffin Club has helped hundreds craft their own caskets. There’s the lifelong farmer with photographs of his favorite cows and sheep that will accompany him into the afterlife; the musician whose coffin looks more like a Steinway piano than a stairway to heaven; and the Vietnam War veteran who strapped an outboard motor to the vessel for his “final voyage,” and raised a few eyebrows when he lined it with the finest, dainty lace.

Coffin Club branches have sprung up all over New Zealand and Australia. People as far away as England and Italy have contacted the club about starting their own branches. Williams acknowledges the idea of a do-it-yourself coffin-making club may have been a logical next step for her after a career as a midwife and, more recently, a palliative care nurse. “It’s certainly made me more empathetic to the beginning of life and the end of life,” she says of her work.

Living in geothermally active Rotorua – a provincial lakeside town that’s a three-hour drive from Auckland, the most populous city in the country – might have had a little something to do with it as well. The township is set on the edge of an almost fourteen-mile-wide crater lake. Steaming geysers are a frequent sight on crosstown drives; they’re even in people’s backyards. The air always reeks of sulphur. In November a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked parts of New Zealand, severely damaging a historic museum in Rotorua. Then, geysers on the lake erupted, reportedly spraying water a hundred feet into the air.  Residents take the regular rumblings in stride, but Rotorua is also an ever-present reminder of the inescapable forces of nature.

The club headquarters is located on the aptly named Old Quarry Road. In the front of the building about a half dozen coffins in various stages of completion sit on trestles across the parking lot. There’s an elegantly wallpapered coffin, one painted with forest scenes, another with cartoon chickens, and a box plastered with newspaper sports pages being crafted by a woman for her husband.

In the workshop, Van Morrison plays on the radio, saws buzz and dust flies. Bruce McPike, 86, or “Bruce the Builder,” is here. He is one of the handful of retired construction workers, joiners and handymen who decided to volunteer at the club and help others build their coffins. They’re armed with the practical skills to make the basic coffin boxes and ensure they meet legal standards.

Two volunteers are carefully lining the inside of a coffin. “That’s to catch any body fluids over a period of days or weeks,” Harold Gordon, a man in his eighties, explains. “So you don’t get any mess on the floor or anywhere. This is compulsory, a health requirement.”

A soft-spoken new member, Jenny Hawira, 58, arrives to paint her coffin. Hawira is part of New Zealand’s indigenous community, the Maori. Some of their traditions, coupled with comments from work colleagues, had compelled her to worry that being a member of the Coffin Club would be like “asking for death to come in the door.”

Williams put her in touch with a Maori elder, who is also a Christian minister. Hawira says the minister told her, “For goodness sake, it’s just a box. It’s not until someone goes into it that it becomes special.”

For many, an attraction of making one’s own coffin is the cheaper cost. Maori often have large families, so funeral expenses can rack up. Hawira cared for her mother for about seven years, and when she died her family paid about $1,700 NZ, or $1,200 US, for the coffin supplied by the funeral parlor. Her own Coffin Club version, built from inexpensive fibreboard, will cost about $250 NZ, or $180 US.

“I’ve got a young family and I think about them,” Hawira says, adding that they are not very wealthy. “I wouldn’t want to put the burden on them.”

Hawira is still contemplating how to decorate her coffin, but thinks images of cats are likely to be featured somehow.

The Coffin Club provides an opportunity to socialize. Many of the club’s members and volunteers are retired and have recently lost spouses, family members and friends. They were becoming increasingly isolated, lonely, worrying about their own death. Williams insists the Coffin Club not only helps people come to terms with death, but gives them a new lease on life.

“Death is one of those things that people have to confront,” she says. “I firmly believe that those who have confronted it have a whole different spirit in them that gives them energy. The oldies here…some of them are really ailing, disabled, frail, and they perk up when they come here.”

Some have stopped by on this Wednesday morning not to build or decorate their coffins, but just to be a part of the group and contribute in other ways. While Williams is busy at the computer and on the telephone, issuing instructions and guidance to members, others have brought in home-cooked delicacies for morning tea and lunch.

The Coffin Club as seen from the road.
The Coffin Club as seen from the road.

Raewynne Latemore is here helping out even though she’s already finished her coffin – an Elvis Presley casket where the inside lid features a life-like image of the King in a red jacket. “People say he’ll be laying on top of me for eternity,” she says, laughing. The coffin now sits proudly in her Elvis Room at home along with Elvis photos, an Elvis lamp, Elvis clock, Elvis mugs and Elvis cushion covers.

Edda Poynting, 86, sits at a table chatting and doing a crossword puzzle. A tall, elegant woman with a straight back, high cheekbones and long neck, she was a model and professional dancer who did the can-can, the jitterbug and hula. She’s had two husbands, raised six children, and has seventeen grandchildren. Her coffin is as busy as her life has been. The inside is lined with silver lame and sequins. The exterior features dancers, floating white flowers and trumpeting daffodils with musical notes piercing a heart and puffy clouds, all underneath the moon and the sun. Pluto is on there as well because, she says, “I was born the day Pluto was found.” Still, she insists her work isn’t finished yet. “I’ve got two more galaxies to do,” she says, adding, “I’ve got Neptune and an eclipse.”

While the Coffin Club is popular with the elderly, it also provides a valued service for those who never really got a chance at life. The club makes small coffins for babies who are stillborn or are lost before birth. A little teddy bear is placed in each and they are donated to the local hospital’s obstetric unit.

“Since we’ve been giving these coffins free of charge we’ve had some feedback,” Williams says. “A young Maori man came in to see me here at the club one time. He had lost a baby at full term and said ‘we couldn’t have done it without you fellas.’”

Hand-made mosaic crosses, “suitable for making a statement on your coffin,” for sale at the Coffin Club.
Handmade mosaic crosses, “suitable for making a statement on your coffin,” for sale at the Coffin Club.

Like other organizations, the Coffin Club produces a booklet on how to manage the entire funeral process without going near a parlor. It’s part of a broader movement that is beginning to disrupt the traditional funeral industry business model.

“It’s all about control,” Williams says. People are not merely interested in avoiding the exorbitant cost of conventional funeral packages. They are also looking for something different, more imaginative and personalized than an austere coffin, regulation black hearse and a few perfunctory words from a priest or celebrant in a stark chapel. “We can do a funeral for $1,000 NZ ($710 US), compared with $12,000 to $14,000 NZ ($8,500 to $10,000 US),” Williams observes. “We did that for my brother and it showed him for what he was, rather than what he wasn’t, which is a mahogany-and-gold bloke; he was a farmer.”

Entrepreneurs are increasingly latching onto this demand, offering funeral services that are more like art gallery openings and held in unusual venues such as aircraft hangars, historic homes, or even the deceased’s own home. It’s now possible to plan and book every element of a funeral online and run a crowd funding campaign to pay for it. More affordable coffins can also be bought directly from a range of suppliers, and for the environmentally conscious, there are plenty of options to be buried without being chemically embalmed in a biodegradable container within a natural forest setting.

While the Coffin Club might not yet be to the funeral business what Über is to the taxi industry, it is part of a broader trend in which people in countries such as Australia, England, Canada and the United States, as well as New Zealand, are looking at ways of doing death differently, not only saving money, but having a greater say in how they leave this world – which, according to Williams, is starting to ruffle a few undertakers’ tailcoats. She says the local funeral industry has generally been polite and outwardly supportive, but when she contacted one business to try to buy some fancy handles the phone “went clunk” once they realized she was from the Coffin Club.

Members of the club take a break to socialize over tea.
Members of the club take a break to socialize over tea.

In an email, a representative of the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand wrote that disruptions of the kind the Coffin Club presents are still only a tiny part of the nation’s funeral scene, and that the industry is often at the forefront of change, offering fresh services such as live online streaming of funerals.

Around lunchtime, the members and volunteers of the Coffin Club begin packing up, carrying caskets they’ve been decorating from the parking lot back into the workshop. They’re also loading a couple of completed coffins, wrapped in green plastic, in to a van.  Each is bound for their owner’s home where they will stay, stored in a garage, or possibly used as a bookcase, coffee table or window seat, until the day they are needed to fulfil their ultimate purpose.

Edda Poynting, the ex-dancer, says seeing her extravagantly decorated casket every day reminds her that one day she will end up inside it. But that doesn’t bother her at all. It’s the Coffin Club ethos: “None of us are afraid,” she says. “It’s a wonderful feeling. I mean there’s nothing you can do about it, so you might as well accept it.”