The idea

I know first hand the value in being creatively hands-on as a collective group decorating the coffin of someone you love. The community love shone through and was my safety net as family and friends came together to decorate my son’s coffin at home after he was killed in a car crash when he was just 22.

A few years after Robbie died, 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, recycled, sustainably-sourced materials.

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, then 77 years old; a former palliative care nurse. During a brainstorming session at a gathering of the University of the Third Age (U3A), 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 this award-winning doco/musical [3:46]

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 (like me) to use power tools?
  • What if someone cut off a finger?

Coffin designs

My head was spinning. An easier question to answer was: 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 patterns and instructions.

DIY coffin-bookcase

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!! Here is the unique pattern to turn your coffin into a beautiful bookcase until it is required: Home Bookcase Unit + DIY Coffin

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

Defining our focus

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 2019 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 demo coffin 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 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.

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.

Sourcing an eco-coffin

We decided not to build coffins from scratch for our project so we can focus on the decorating (and keep all our fingers). I looked around for affordable eco coffins in Australia. There are beautiful raw wood with rope handle coffins but they are very heavy and very expensive and too big to efficiently store. Then I came across a beautiful practical design in Holland called Coffin In A Box. It is a cleverly designed flat pack coffin that is easy and quick to assemble. The dimensions of the box are 1,150 x 700 x 150mm and it weighs 30kg. So it is easy to store. It is also environmentally friendly being made from untreated unvarnished European poplar plywood PEFC/E1 and comes with a natural cotton calico liner and wood chip pillow. Best of all it is incredibly affordable. In fact the majority of the cost for us in Australia is the delivery fee yet it still works out about 50% cheaper than buying a wood coffin in Australia.

The Eco Coffin Project had begun!

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