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Coffins create community

A coffin-decorating club in New Zealand has done more for its members than just helping them to save money on their final farewells...

What’s the connection between a tram, leprechauns, flowers, taffeta and sparkles, a woodland scene, a go-kart, sheet music and Elvis?

Well, these all feature on coffins decorated by a group of New Zealand senior citizens, in readiness for their final journey.

They’ve been produced at the Kiwi Coffin Club, founded six years ago by former midwife and palliative care nurse Katie Williams, 77, with the aims of social interaction, keeping funeral costs down and creating personalised coffins.

Katie says her age and profession meant funerals had become a perpetual part of her life but so often, these did not convey the personality of the person who had died.

“You would not know what they were really like,” she says. “I had a deep-seated feeling that people’s journey’s deserved a more personal farewell.”

She expressed this view, found others shared it, and organised a group to meet in her garage to create their own.

The club was slow to start but once local handy men came on board, it took off and the model has spread around the country, with a dozen coffin clubs operating across New Zealand. Katie has also had enquiries from the UK, The Czech Republic and Japan.

Around 60 members attend the weekly club mornings, but most have already completed their coffins and come to help others – to help in the kitchen, with cleaning, construction or transport, or to help frailer members decorate. 

Everyone is a volunteer and those in the workshop make up to three coffins in a day, using timber bought in bulk.  Each coffin costs just NZ$250.

“It is wonderful to see these wooden boxes made to depict the owner’s life and interests,” says Katie. “How splendid it is that we can have control of our last journey.  The help given by the knowledgeable volunteers is wondrous. Nobody need go it alone.

“Socially it is an incredible happening. So many of our older citizens can be lonely or are missing out on a loving touch. Plenty of cuddles and kisses are part of our philosophy and if someone is expected but does not come, another member checks on them.”
Originally aimed at older people, the groups do occasionally involve younger people.

“We have a few intellectually challenged young folk who help with the decorating with artistic ideas, with painting especially,” explains Katie. “Also some young family members help with the creativity part… A 17-year-old came to decorate her 12-year-old brother’s coffin. He had an inoperable brain tumour. She cried and sang throughout and this was an important part of her grieving.”

Katie says the club is particularly appealing to Maori people, who often have large families and find the cost of funerals crippling.

Club members also make small boxes in four sizes for local obstetric units to use for foetal deaths. Each is lined and includes a teddy bear. A group of young prisoners in a nearby prison also make these.

And Katie believes that the club is also helping to break down barriers and making discussion of death easier. “A huge benefit of the club has been the opportunities of family involvement in the planning of their loved ones wishes at the end of their life,” she says.

“It has often been a taboo subject and it so good to see it out in the open.”


This is a preview of a feature article.

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