Eco Coffin Project: The idea

A few years ago, I came across the Coffin Club concept and have been inspired ever since to start one up in my community in Gawler, South Australia. What is a Coffin Club? It’s a place where people come together to build and decorate their own coffin. Why would you want to build your own coffin? Well to buy one from a funeral director can be very expensive so building your own significantly reduces your cost from thousand(s) of dollars to a few hundred dollars. And you can have fun decorating it to reflect your values and life. You can even get your family and friends involved to help. Plus you can build it out of the materials you choose; in my case environmentally friendly, sustainably-sourced materials.

I had personal experience of the love that shines through when decorating my son’s coffin with family and friends back in 2012 after he died in a car accident when he was just 22. Robbie was doing his Master of Architecture on his way to making his dream a reality of designing sustainable biophilic spaces and places. So when I flicked through the pages of the coffin catalogue handed to me by the funeral director at our kitchen table it felt like every page showed a coffin that was not only more expensive but also was more ornate with more metal and varnish and shiny synthetic linings. None of the offerings used sustainably-sourced, environmentally-friendly materials so I knew none were suitable for Robbie. I had seen a doco that showed an Italian family decorating a coffin in their lounge room so I asked the funeral director for a plain wooden coffin we could decorate made from sustainable wood. He looked uncomfortable, squirmed a bit in his seat and finally said that all he could offer me was a simple coffin that a local person made for them for people who could not afford much; previously referred to as a ‘pauper’s coffin’. I replied that sounded perfect. So the coffin was delivered to our home. Sadly it was made from MDF which is a combination of wood chips and glues with lots of toxic chemicals. The handles were metal. But it allowed us to decorate as we wanted. I thought it would just be our immediate small family involved in the decorating but word got out and soon I was receiving emails with photos, poems, drawings, letters to be decoupaged onto the coffin from Robbie’s friends around the world. Living on campus at uni for a few years meant he had friends from all over.

Family and friends decorating Robbie's coffin
Family and friends decorating Robbie’s coffin

Then we thought well maybe friends of Robbie who lived locally may like to pop in a decorate the coffin. So we put the word out that we would have an open day. We had Robbie’s fav radio station playing, Triple J, in our light-filled room with lots of craft materials. I was amazed at the steady stream of people, young and old, who came to our home that day. Responses were so varied. Some of his mates tentatively walked in asking if Robbie was in the coffin. He wasn’t. If I was doing it now with all I have learned these last 7 years, Robbie’s body would definitely be in the coffin. Anyway, some people stayed a short time, others stayed for hours. Some actively worked on the decorations, cutting, pasting, sticking, painting while others sat silently on the couches or just stood and watched. Sometimes there was laughter, sometimes there were tears, sometimes there was silence. Lots of Robbie stories were shared: “Remember the time when …” At the end of the day the coffin was covered in love – nothing in the coffin catalogue could match what we had collectively created – it was priceless. The coffin lid was a collective message for Robbie, starting on the outer edge and spriralling its way to the centre, where each person who came wrote something from their heart. There were so many printed email offerings that we had run out of space on the coffin so I placed them all on Robbie’s heart, under his folded hands. From this amazing experience I know first hand the value in being creatively hands-on as a collective group decorating a coffin of someone you love.

Collective messages spiralling in for Robbie from all who decorated the coffin
Collective messages spiralling in for Robbie from all who decorated the coffin

Coffin Clubs do much more than just build coffins; they build community by bringing people together, overcoming loneliness, learning new skills, encouraging creativity, increasing death literacy and having fun together.

The original Coffin Club was founded in 2010 in Rotorua, New Zealand, by Katie Williams, 77 years old; a former palliative care nurse. During a brainstorming session at a University of the Third Age (U3A) gathering, Katie got the idea of building her own coffin. With the help of some friends with carpentry, building and decorating skills she built her own coffin in her garage. It looked so good, her friends helped each other build their owns coffins as well. Coffin Clubs have since sprung up across New Zealand, Ireland, England and in 2016 the first one in Australia was started by Care Beyond Cure with the support and drive from passionate volunteers like the wonderful Lynne Jarvis. It’s called the Community Coffin Club and is located in Ulverstone in Tasmania’s north-west. To understand the concept of Coffin Club and put a smile on your face take a few minutes to watch the award-winning doco/musical by clicking on the image below.

Click on image to watch the doco/musical [4 minutes]

So what to do in my community? I contacted Katie in New Zealand and she was very encouraging and helpful. For the making space, I was thinking of inviting our local Men’s Shed to be involved with the hope they would mentor us with woodworking skills and tools and maybe even be inspired to make their own coffins. For the decorating space, I was thinking about approaching Riverdell Centre, a beautiful location for creative work. Issues that seemed too hard to nut through were: where would we source our eco wood from?, would it be too expensive going eco?, where would we store the coffins during the making/decorating process? Was it safe for unskilled people to use power tools? What if someone cut off a finger? My head was spinning.

An easier question to answer was around the design: what shape would the coffins be? I asked Lynne down in Tasmania what patterns they used for their coffins and she said they just did a Google search. Following her lead, I found some excellent patterns and here are the most helpful links:

I had heard somewhere about a coffin that could be turned into a bookcase but I could not find it anywhere anymore on the net. Then synchronicity worked its magic when a friend and I were ride sharing to an event and it came up in conversation that she had the pattern I was after. By the end of the day my friend had emailed it too me. Whilst writing this blog I did another search and lo and behold I have just found the original link with not only the pattern but a photo of the finished item – stunning!!

Then nothing happened for a few years – but the idea still burned in my head and heart.

Then last year I became Treasurer of the Gawler Environment Centre Committee. I had found my tribe; working with like-minded people combining our passion for the environment and sustainable living (and dying) with community engagement. The Gawler Coffin Club was our initial vision which was going to be modelled on the original Coffin Club in New Zealand and the Community Coffin Club in Tasmania. However as it was important for our sole focus to be on sustainability and only using organic biodegradable building and decorating materials the name then changed to the Eco Coffin Club. As Natural Burials were to be our desired resting pace for our participants we would also be creating and making beautiful shrouds which are allowed by the SA Burial and Cremation Act 2013.

We decided the upcoming Sustainable Living Festival, that is a biennial project for the Gawler Environment Centre, was the perfect place to launch our new project. My wonderful husband said he would make us a couple of demo coffins to use at our launch for festival-goers to decorate. It would give us a chance to see how the patterns worked that I had found on the net. Many people do not realise you can build and decorate your own coffin so even this one activity at our launch would inspire some people in the wider community, even before the actual project began.

We needed wood and that came from a kind large donation of rough-hewn untreated pine planks from our Chairman’s employer, Link Edge. My husband beavered away for many intermittent hours over a week in the shed and created our first coffin in a rectangular shape. This can be used as a storage box and bench seat until needed as a coffin. We will use this for decorating at the launch.

Our first demo hand made coffin to be used for decorating at the launch
Our first demo hand made coffin to be used for decorating at the launch

But we were still overwhelmed by the ongoing task of sourcing materials, tools, storage, skills and time to start up a club. A club maybe a small word but requires a large ongoing year in year out commitment with a passionate group driving it all the time. None of us felt up to that challenge. In addition the Gawler Environment Centre’s strategic direction around community engagement is project focussed rather than club based so we needed to remind ourselves to stay true to our organisation’s mission.

Then synchronicity struck again. I came across an article about the great work of the London Coffin Club and saw that one of the many activities they offer is a short course. Then the idea emerged that we could create an annual community project to creatively engage people to consider what a sustainable death means to them. From that seed, the Eco Coffin Project sprouted.

We have decided not to build coffins from scratch for our project. Again synchronicity led us to a cost effective, sustainable solution that is perfect for our participants and the direction our Eco Coffin Project is taking.

To find out just what our fabulous, game-changing Eco Coffin solution is come along to our launch at 10:30am on Sunday 27 October at the Sustainable Living Festival, Pioneer Park, Gawler for the big reveal!

Our next post will be written after the launch of the Eco Coffin Project at 10:30am on Sunday 27 October at the Sustainable Living Festival, Pioneer Park, Gawler. Come along and then stay to help decorate the coffin.

Eco Coffin Project: The program

The Eco Coffin Project is looking for 10 curious people to participate in a 6-week program commencing early in 2020 to explore, inform and create a very personal story of what sustainable death means to each of them.

The group will meet weekly in Gawler for a 3-hour session from 9am-12pm with morning tea provided.

Over this consecutive 6-week period we will have guest speakers, site visits, workshops and making and decorating time for either an eco-coffin or organic shroud that each person will own and take home at the end of the project.

The project will culminate in a Death Café and public Art Exhibition of the decorated eco-coffins and organic shrouds as a way to further engage the wider community in starting the conversation around what is a sustainable death?

Program

The exciting Eco Coffin Project program for 2020 is shaping up as follows:

Week 1: The Big Picture

  • Program overview
  • Introductions
  • Pushing Up Daisies workshop

Week 2: Out and About

  • Crematorium site visit
  • Natural Burial Ground site visit

Week 3: Inspiration

  • Guest Speakers: Local Artists
  • Plan your design
  • Eco-Coffin assembly and organising shroud materials

Week 4: Making & Decorating

  • Guest Speaker: End-of-Life Guide
  • Decorating eco-coffins and shrouds

Week 5: Making & Decorating

  • Guest Speaker: Funeral Director
  • Decorating eco-coffins and shrouds

Week 6: Making & Decorating

  • Group reflection activity
  • Decorating eco-coffins and shrouds

Public Art Exhibition & Death Cafe

Program facilitator

The program facilitator is Abby Buckley. Abby is a Social Ecologist, Bush Adventure Therapy Leader and Celebrant who finds guidance and inspiration from nature on how to positively embrace death in our everyday lives so we feel connected, empowered and enlivened. Death Cafes, Before I Die Walls, Death Over Dinner and Dying To Know Days are some of the conversation-starting community events she has facilitated in Gawler over the last 5 years along with being an event speaker on topics such as Natural Burial. She facilitates her Pushing Up Daisies workshop for participants keen to develop a toolkit to create their end-of-life plan that matches their budget and sustainability values. Her network and knowledge of the industry developed during her year at Adelaide Cemeteries Authority. She is so passionate about this topic that she is currently doing social research on embracing death in our ordinary everyday for her PhD thesis. Through her celebrancy business she creates personalised, values-based ceremonies and rituals to assist people meaningfully navigate love, loss & life; making moments matter.

Thanks to our sponsors

This is a not-for-profit community project hosted by Gawler Environment Centre. Thanks to the generous support from our sponsors: Town of Gawler, Adelaide & Mount Lofty Ranges NRM Board via the Gawler Environment Centre and Link Edge; the investment to be part of this exciting new initiative is reduced to just $200 per person. The facilitator and all guest speakers have kindly agreed to volunteer their time to the project at no cost. All money goes towards covering the project expenses and materials.

Thanks to our sponsors: AMLNRM Board, Town of Gawler, Link Edge, GEC

Register your interest

To register your interest to be a potential participant in the 2020 Eco Coffin Project send us an email with your contact details to coordinator@gawlerenvironmentcentre.org.au and we will be in touch.

In our next post, we will share where the idea for the Eco Coffin Project originated.

Eco Coffin Project: The issues

Increasingly in Australia more of us strive to make changes to live a sustainable life but what are we doing to ensure we have a sustainable death? What does a sustainable death even mean?

Cremation

The majority of us in Australia will be cremated – around 70%. We have become very creative with what we do with the ashes of people we love. Ashes can be scattered by hand or by drone over a favourite place, buried in a container in a cemetery in a wall or the earth with a memorial plant, contained in an urn that starts on the mantle and ends up forgotten in a cupboard, buried at home in a pod under a tree, crafted into jewellery, blown into a glass paperweight, shot into space, cemented into a reef, inked into a tattoo, blown up in fireworks, loaded into ammo to be used on your next hunting trip or even turned into a favourite tune in a vinyl record.

Cremated ashes turned into a vinyl record
Cremated ashes turned into a vinyl record

So, we asked the question: How is any of that good for the environment or us? Burning a body to ash in a cremator takes on average about 90 minutes using non-renewable fossil fuels, usually natural gas. Harmful toxins and greenhouses gases including carbon monoxide, embalming agents (such as formaldehyde), mercury found in dental fillings, heavy metals and known carcinogens like dioxins are vapourised and emitted, depending on the body, and pollute the air, depending on the filtration system. Technology is working to reduce the amount of non-renewable fossil fuels required by the cremator and increase the amount of toxins captured in the filtering system but the fact remains non-renewable fossil fuels are still being used and toxins emitted. There is no such thing as a ‘safe level of a toxic chemical’. Interestingly and surprisingly, if using the latest more efficient cremators, cremation has less impact on the environment than traditional burial.

Drone scattering cremated ashes
Drone scattering cremated ashes

The Australian Bureau of Statistics report that over 160,000 of us die each year in Australia so with 70% of us choosing cremation that is around 112,000 bodies being burned every 12 months. That is over 168,000 hours of burning non-renewable fossil fuels every year in Australia just on body disposal. This number does not take into account the additional gas required to pre-heat the cremator. This number will continue to rise with an increasing population resulting in eventually more deaths per year and with the popularity of cremation continuing to rise, due in part to its lower cost than burial.

Burial

The rest of us – around 30% – will keep our bodies in the one spot by being nailed into a coffin. This box will be either placed in a hole in a wall in a mausoleum (bit like an apartment block for the dead) or in a concrete cocoon in the earth called a vault or in a hole in the ground that is often so deep to make room for three coffins to be stacked on top of each other. Each of these options happen in a cemetery.

Again, we asked the question: How is any of that good for the environment or us? Toxic chemicals from the embalming process and non-organic coffin materials leach into the soil, and expose funeral workers to potential hazards. Concrete, metals, synthetic textiles and plastic are some of the non-bio-degradable materials buried with a coffin. Maintaining the garden memorial plots requires a lot of land, uses a lot of water for the lawn and plants and burns up a lot of non-renewable fossil fuels that power the earthmoving and lawn-mowing equipment, which also have embodied energy from the manufacturing process. Highly landscaped, sculptured, urban cemeteries discourage native animals and vegetation.

Highly landscaped, sculptured, urban cemeteries discourage native animals and vegetation.
Highly landscaped, sculptured, urban cemeteries discourage native animals and vegetation.

A miniscule few of us donate our bodies to science (if they are accepted – it is certainly not a given) or are buried on private land or are given the OK to be dumped in the sea. Each of these options require a lot of pre-planning and written approval long before the death happens.

With pre-planning a few of us donate our body to science
With pre-planning a few of us donate our body to science

Disconnection from death

Sadly, in recent generations in our culture we have become not only disconnected from nature but also disconnected from death. Many of us are afraid of death, or feel it is a taboo topic, or are just not comfortable talking about it. Our burial practices ensure our bodies are eternally separated from and harmful to nature by injecting them with chemicals, wrapping them in plastic and either burning them or encasing them in various combinations of metal, wood and concrete. The idea of scattering the ashes of your person over the roses they lovingly cared for in life is beautiful and romantic. But did you know cremated ashes are actually harmful to plants and would kill those roses in such a large quantity?

Most of us are unfamiliar with our death system and what we can and cannot do e.g. Can I bring or keep the body of my person at home when they die? If so, how long for? Do all bodies need to be embalmed? Can I make and use my own coffin? Can I be buried in a shroud? Are there other options to cremation and burial? What is a natural burial? Many of us have never even thought about what we can and cannot do when either we or someone we love is dying or dies. Many of us simply outsource death. We think: “Well, by law don’t we have to get a funeral director to do everything?”.

Maybe there is more to this story for us to learn. Then we can make more informed, more meaningful, more cost-effective and more sustainable decisions when death comes into our life.

Pilyu Yarta Natural Burial Ground, Smithfield, South Australia
Pilyu Yarta, Natural Burial Ground, Smithfield, South Australia

The Eco Coffin Project aims to uncover, explore and share this unfolding story of sustainable death in an interactive, inclusive, creative way with our community.

In our next post, we will reveal the 2020 Program for the Eco Coffin Project

Sustainable Living Festival: Sun 27 Oct 2019

Sun 27 Oct – hold the date – Gawler Environment Centre is proud to present the Sustainable Living Festival again in 2019!

The Festival will feature exciting guest presenters, including foodie Simon Bryant from Dirty Depot and the Cook and the Chef, Almost zero eco-blogger Niki Wallace, beekeeper extraordinaire Mademoiselle Bee, plus a range of workshops, kids activities and live entertainment.

As we get closer to the event we will be releasing further details so please watch this space!


Join Terry Langham from the Friends of Waite Arboretum at 1.30pm in the Workshop Tent for a demonstration re all things bee hotel! Learn all about native bees, the different types of bee hotels, and the materials, tools and techniques for making them.

‘Australian native bees need food, they will love you forever by: 1. Growing flowers, 2. Growing more flowers 3. Creating flower smorgasbords and flower restaurants and 4. Creating a native bee hotel’. 


Sustainable Living Festival Performer profile: Meryl Schiller. Meryl has been playing on and off gigs around Australia at pubs, family dos and campfires for the last 17 odd years, mostly covers with occasional originals thrown in. Meryl’s influences are The Waifs, Regina Spektor, First Aid Kit, Yuna, Fiona Apple and Brooke Fraser and she tends to play acoustic folky rootsy bluesy tunes. Meryl loves to play the 7th, 8th and 9th songs from albums so you might know the artist, but perhaps not the song! Check her out at 12.30pm.



Stroll over to the Rotunda from 11.30am to hear some sweet tunes from local song bird Cloudy Davey. A genuinely diverse diva of rich talent, Cloudy Davey’s refreshingly individual sound is a wonderful mix of musical temperaments that draws from both traditional and contemporary roots.


Join Vanessa Hoo (Mademoiselle Bee) in the Workshop Tent at 11.30am to glean some top tips for bee-keeping and bee-care. 

Vanessa Hoo is a 2nd generation beekeeper, Horticultural Therapist, Mother, Environmental Philanthropist. Vanessa is a fervid advocate for bees. She rescues our pollinators, by offering a diverse range of services around South Australia. From mentoring, to education sessions, to live bee removal, and adoption/sponsorship programs, and public talks. 

Vanessa’s Vision is;
“I see myself developing a better future for the bee population, as well as scientifically improving our knowledge in the world of Bees. Creating a better environment and greener Australia“


Wanna find out how two people and two dogs created only one jar of rubbish in one year? Niki Wallace from sustainability consultancy Almost Zero will share her top tips for a low waste lifestyle in the Speaker’s Tent at 11am. 

Niki Wallace is a designer and researcher whose work focuses on design for transitions. She founded Almost Zero in 2017 in response to questions from family and friends about how to reduce their waste and improve their carbon footprints. Niki is an experienced lecturer, coach and facilitator whose expertise in sustainability and zero waste lifestyles spanning homes, workplaces and schools, helps others to transition towards more sustainable futures. 

GEC has a new strategic plan! Check it out here.

The committee of Gawler Environment Centre is pleased to present our new Strategic Plan for 2019-20 to 2021-22. We look forward to delivering an exciting range of workshops, activities and events informed by the following priorities:

Sustainable Living and Environments:

o Low waste lifestyles

o Sustainable gardens and peri-urban landscapes

o Diversification of ongoing funding/financial support

View the plan in full at: GEC Strategic Plan 2019-20 to 2021-22