When Katie Williams started a coffin club in her garage 12 years ago, she hoped to build something beautiful and help others do the same. But she never imagined the concept would help thousands create their own coffins, find some peace with death and inspire a global movement.
The idea for the Coffin Club in Rotorua, believed to be the first in the world, was born at a local University of The Third Age meeting. Out of nowhere, Katie thought, "I'd like to build my own coffin." She says her suggestion was initially met with dead silence, but it didn't take long before others were interested too.
"I was a little overwhelmed," admits the 83-year-old. "But I got cracking and sorted out lots of old pals. I ended up with a core of incredibly wonderful older people who had time on their hands and suddenly had something they thought they might like doing."
Initially, the club met in Katie's garage, where they constructed and decorated their own coffins. "It wasn't long before every room in my house was dedicated to coffins," she tells.
And they aren't your standard highly polished wood with heavy brass handles ones. Coffin Club members generally opt for something that reflects their personality and passions.
While bright colours and flowers are common, one member adored Elvis and plastered his picture all over the coffin, and another woman, who recently passed away, painted her beloved chickens.
"There were chooks everywhere at her funeral too and instead of putting a flower on the coffin, we put eggs," laughs Katie. "She hoped to make Christmas and she didn't quite, so we had a Christmas tree and lights at her funeral."
Katie says being part of a movement like the Coffin Club allows people to take a certain amount of control over their destiny and prepare for death with less fear.
"It's not only making their coffins," she explains. "We have people that have been coming since 2010. They're fed and watered, and loved and listened to.
"We're in the middle of a silver tsunami – there's a whole heap of oldies and fewer younger ones to care about them, so socialising and being cared about is just as important."
Speaking to Katie, it's hard not to be swept up by her enthusiasm as she talks about all of the people whose lives – and deaths – have been changed for the better in some way by the club.
"Some of the members' families keep saying, 'You won't die, Mum. You can't die.' But of course she can! We all have to die at some point, and we have to move with the times and talk about these things," insists Katie, adding that eventually family members and grandchildren often get involved, helping to decorate their loved one's coffin.
Katie says she isn't sure where the idea for the club came from, but a lifetime of caring for people as a midwife and hospice nurse during her career undoubtedly influenced her own attitude to death.
"I'm a funny old tart inside," she confides. "I think a little bit differently than some people, and having the experiences as a midwife and a hospice nurse, seeing people dying – some happily, some very unhappily – it must have changed me a lot."
She's made two coffins for herself. The first she gave away to someone in need, and the second is covered in graffiti done by a local artist and friend of hers.
And when she finally passes, Katie hopes her life will be celebrated with lots of laughter.
Deeply humble, Katie prefers to talk about the concept of Coffin Clubs rather than her individual achievements, like the Queen's Service Medal she received for services to senior citizens and the community.
And while she recently stepped down as chairperson after more than 12 years at the helm, the impact she has had is undeniable.
When word of the Coffin Club in Rotorua first spread, similar ventures started popping up all over the country and soon after the concept took off globally.
Katie estimates she's had contact from around 50 other countries over the years that've gone on to set up their own clubs. International attention led to interviews, podcasts and even a musical documentary celebrating its Aotearoa roots.
"The Coffin Club concept is deep and wide and emotional," she enthuses. "It's incredible really and yet it's quite simple. It's about education, accessibility to any information you might want, but mostly about love and companionship."
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