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, being opened by the Mayor 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.

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