Peter Toohey Ph.D.

Annals of the Emotions

Why Would Anyone Build Their Own Coffin?

Community Coffin Clubs are becoming popular in Australasia - what's behind it?

Posted Jul 18, 2017

"You've got to face death, so it's a lot easier if you've got the coffin ready," he said.  That’s Russell Game speaking with Carla Howarth of  ABCNEWS (Australia).  They were taking at the Community Coffin Club in Ulverstone, an attractive, but not so well known town of about 14,000 people on the north coast of Australia’s Tasmania.

At the Coffin Club, reports Carla Howarth, they don’t buy and sell coffins, they build them themselves. That’s the users, not the undertakers.  Build your own coffin?  Why would anyone choose such a strange hobby?

Russell Game thinks that his hobby of making coffins will have the benefit of getting him used to the idea of death.  He also explained to Carla Howarth "I don't know what the funeral directors think about it, but we can make them for probably a tenth of the cost.”  Mr. Game will make his coffin for about AUD$200, quite a save on the $2000 for the average North American commercial casket.  If you factor in inflation, then this is a real bargain.  That’s unless it’s a retirement hobby.  It looks like it is for Mr. Game.

Other members of  Ulverstone’s Community Coffin Club place utility above cost benefits.  Carla Howarth spoke to Sheree Whittington, who doesn’t look like she’s at retirement age yet.  She plans to use her coffin as a CD and DVD rack until her final date comes.  "It's an actual, functional piece of furniture,” she bravely claims.  And Declan Banim, another enthusiastic Coffin Club member, will boldly use his version as a bookcase.   “It'll be in my lounge room”, he calmly explains.  Mr. Banim did hint that if one of his friends needed the coffin that he’d be glad to oblige.

Ulverstone Community Copffin Club Facebook Page
Coffin Clubs in New Zealand
Source: Ulverstone Community Copffin Club Facebook Page

As far as I can tell the Coffin Clubs started in New Zealand.  A Guardian report in September 2016 by Eleanor Ainge Roy suggested that the clubs may have begun in New Zealand’s north island, in the town of Rotorua.  This was in 2010.  Katie Williams, aged 77 last year, is a former palliative care nurse and she founded the Coffin Club movement in New Zealand as an act of psychological palliative care for the aged.   Since then a dozen clubs have popped up.  Katie Williams’ initial aim was to personalize funerals.  Her goal was also practical: New Zealand Coffin Club caskets fetch in at NZ$250, not much more than the Australian copies. But, according to Ms Williams, the biggest attraction of the Coffin Club movement for her mainly older members is companionship. “There is a lot of loneliness among the elderly,” Ms Williams states, “but at the coffin club people feel useful, and it is very social. We have morning tea and lunch, and music blaring, and cuddles”.  Maybe, but they could just as effectively be making wooden toys for their grand children.  Why not a Toy Club?  Why coffins?

The clubbers in Tasmania appear to be a little younger than those in New Zealand.  That’s what the photos on the Ulverstone club Facebook page suggest.  People like Sheree Whittington don’t seem like they would want for companionship.  Could there be an additional answer for the popularity of the local Coffin Club, apart from companionship, from cost savings, and from getting used to death?

A month or two ago I spoke here about the current interest - enthusiasm is maybe too strong a word -  for “death watches”.  One of these time pieces is called the Tikker. “The top row of the watch's digital display shows years, months and days, while the second row counts down hours, minutes and seconds. The bottom row shows the local time.”  The top two rows tell you how long you’ve got till you’ll die.  (You fill out a life expectancy chart before you set the clock going.)  The aim of the death watch is not to improve your death, but to improve your life.  Remember your death, the makers suggest, and you’ll better use your life.  Since I wrote about those watches I’ve learned about Simon Garfield’s book Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed with Time. Mr. Garfield describes one imaginary clock called the Cyclops.  It doesn’t have a minute hand.  Mr. Garfield reckons a watch like this would help people manage time better.  They’d focus on the bigger picture and not on the small stuff.  Remember that you won’t live for ever, you could say, and don’t waste your time.  

Could this be another one of the benefits of building your own coffin?  The sight of the coffin in your living room full of of CD’s and DVD’s or of books might encourage you to seize the day.  Is that part of the reason for the antipodean interest in Coffin Clubs?

Daily Sabah, April 22, 2016
Enjoy yourself
Source: Daily Sabah, April 22, 2016

There’s a long historical tradition that uses images relating to death to cheer you up.  Is this the same thing?  Last year in Antioch in Turkey a 2400-year-old mosaic was unearthed that showed a reclining skeleton on the hooch.  The skeleton has a wine glass in its left hand and its right arm is raised enthusiastically above its head.  In the background is a pitcher of wine and a loaf of bread.   The Greek inscription on the mosaic says “enjoy yourself”.  That Turkish skeleton sure knows how to enjoy itself.  I guess what the mosaic means is that if you remember your death you’ll better use your life. That’s certainly what those enthusiastic watch makers intended.  

Is that why coffin clubs are more popular in Rotorua or Ulverstone than toy making clubs?  Perhaps it’s not just saving money, making friends, and coming to terms with death that are important.  The attraction is, just as it was for that paradoxical bones-bag, to live a better life by valuing what’s right now.  Maybe that’s a big part of the attraction for Sheree Whittington and Declan Banim in building a coffin and keeping it in their living rooms stuffed with possessions.  Remember your death, as the skeleton might advise, and you’ll better use your life.