The DIY coffin club helping familes in need

The Rotorua club volunteers makes the MDF coffins for families facing financial hardship as well as baby coffins for the local hospital.

You could say it’s a dead giveaway – when members of a club describe themselves as makers of fine, affordable underground furniture, you can bet they’re not talking about picnic tables or patio chairs.
Coffin club founder Katie Williams laughs, nodding her mop of grey hair vigorously. Give her a pun; she’s heard it – exponents of a dying art, casket cases, dead clever.
The former midwife and palliative care nurse – she jokes her working life began bringing children into the world and ended with supporting people out – has become quite the media darling since launching New Zealand’s first DIY coffin-making club in 2010.
Initially based in Katie’s garage, but now run out of a workshop in downtown Rotorua, the club is a community enterprise like no other and has garnered interest from around the world.
As Katie (78) explains, it all began with a throwaway line following a University of the Third Age class.
“They were looking for new clubs to introduce, so I stood up and said I’d quite like to make my own coffin. I wonder more each day as my busy-ness increases what possessed me, but then all of a sudden people were queuing up and saying what a good idea it was.”
Seven years on and around 50 members turn up to the club HQ each Wednesday to make coffins and have a right knees-up at the same time.
There’s a shared morning tea and lunch – leftovers go into goodie bags for those living alone to take home – as well as music (anything from Van Morrison to Mozart and one member’s an accomplished guitarist), dancing, laughter and lots of hugs.
“The reason behind the club is two-fold,” tells Katie. “First it’s about normalising death, about demystifying it – it’s very difficult for my generation particularly to talk about death and everything related to it – and allowing people more control over how they want to leave. Funerals often have nothing to do with the vibrancy of the people who have died.
“On the other hand, it’s also about loneliness and isolation. It’s incredible how lonely some people can be. Many people living alone never get a loving touch. They’ll talk to the grocer or the checkout operator, but there’s no-one who actually gives them a cuddle and a kiss, and asks how they are. That’s what we’re here for. If one of the regulars doesn’t turn up, someone will get in touch to make sure they’re okay.
“It’s an incredibly happy, well-supported place. There’s nothing morbid about it.”
The coffins are made by a handful of volunteers – the majority of them are retired carpenters or joiners – and decorated by their owners or by other club members. MDF is used “so we’re not chopping up beautiful trees just to be burned or buried”, and because it’s practical and cheap, tells Katie.
When it comes to adorning the caskets, it’s a case of anything goes. One woman arranged to have whanau paint dolphins on the lid of hers. Then there was the farmer who used photographs of favourite cows and sheep to decorate his, and the woman who preferred “chooks to people” with her cartoon chickens.
“We had one darling,” recalls Katie, “an ex-ballroom dancing champion, who did hers up with a lot of bling. The lining was lovely and she made a special matching dress to wear… It was exquisite. She went off in great style with her twinkle-toes on and her hair all beautiful.”
While the oldest member of this creative casket crew will be 100 in August, advanced age isn’t a pre-requisite for membership.
“We had an eight-year-old in over the holidays,” says Katie. “He spent the day undercoating a coffin, even though he had the opportunity to go off biking with a mate. And there was the older sister of a 13-year-old boy with a brain tumour who sat and bawled her eyes out while she was painting his coffin. She wrote what he meant to her on it, how handsome he was, all the loving words and thoughts she had about him – it was incredible.”
Katie’s own coffin is a yet-to-be-lined burgundy affair with white “squirlies and dots”, gussied up with a $20 roll of bargain-bin wallpaper.
She laughs heartily, “I’m a big tart. I’ve got six handles on mine and there’s what you might call a broomstick – a very study piece of dowel – through them in case I need more pallbearers. I’ve been keeping friendly with a lot of young men for that reason, eyeing up the muscles at the gym. My word, yes!”
The club also donates coffins to families facing financial hardship and makes baby coffins, each with a little teddy bear or other soft toy in it, for the local hospital.

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