End-of-life Style

By Lauren Hassani  |  Photos by Marco Javier

Older New Zealanders take a creative approach to the end-of-life process through DIY coffin clubs. 

The topic of discussion at the Kiwi Coffin Club on a Wednesday morning in September was, of course, funerals. Specifically, the funeral of one of their own, Jan Kite, 68, who had been laid to rest just the day before in her bright yellow coffin (of her own design, painted to match the exact shade of her first Mini Cooper). The Coffin Club members who had attended the service recounted the mishap that had occurred while transporting Kite to the cemetery: the hearse broke down and, after a few moments of confusion, the coffin was loaded onto the bed of a pickup truck (along with several members of the immediate family) and sent along its merry way.

“She would have loved that!” says Kay Farrow, 78, laughing. The other members agree that Kite would indeed have gotten a hoot out of her unorthodox ride. It was only fitting for a woman with her vivacious personality, whose license plate read “NOZIMOM” and whose funeral program featured her on the cover, grinning, wearing an inflatable gold crown.

The ability to find the humor in something as grave as death is par for the course for the Kiwi Coffin Club, a group of older volunteers who gather weekly to make custom coffins, for themselves and others, in a facility in Rotorua, a small city on New Zealand’s North Island. Despite its name, this club is more for the living than the dearly departed, serving as a place to socialize and have fun while talking frankly about death, lowering funeral costs, and adding a personal touch to an end-of-life process.

Coffin Club Rotorua member Anneke Slater (left) with Coffin Club founder Katie Williams (right).

Former midwife and palliative care nurse Katie Williams, 84, came up with the idea in 2010 while attending a University of the Third Age conference. Though her suggestion for a new special interest group was met with uncertainty from the audience (“dead silence,” as Williams likes to recount), people lined up post-meeting to express their interest. The club began shortly thereafter — out of Williams’ garage, before relocating to a larger donated space once the growing fleet of coffins had spilled into nearly every room in her house.

Today, taking inspiration from Williams’ brainchild, there are coffin clubs across New Zealand. Even in Rotorua there are two: Kiwi Coffin Club and Coffin Club Rotorua, both of which stemmed from Williams’ original group. After splitting in 2019 for regulatory reasons (new government safety standards related to the operation of woodworking machinery), each group now has a slightly different focus.

Glenys Williams, 80, adds a lining to a coffin.

Lorraine Hamlin, 76, puts the finishing touches on a coffin she designed for a friend.

“People these days cannot afford to live, therefore they can’t afford to die,” laments Williams. This “funeral poverty” is one of her motivations in creating the club.

The Kiwi Coffin Club moved to a larger workshop and took over the technical construction and decorating of coffins from start to finish. They source their materials, including plywood, medium density fiberboard, paint, and hardware fittings, from local suppliers. Coffin Club Rotorua, with Williams at the helm, instead focuses on embellishing basic, pre-fabricated shells obtained from a manufacturer for a steep discount — work that requires no specialized training.

Both groups remain quite close, in geographic proximity as well as friendships, and both share the same mission of creating “high quality and affordable underground furniture.” After contributing NZ $25 to join, members can design their own casket for a fee. Kiwi Coffin Club’s fully decorated models run NZ $800 (US $517), while Coffin Club Rotorua’s range between NZ $450-$490 (US $284-$316). All participants are unpaid volunteers and profits are donated to community organizations and charities.

“People these days cannot afford to live, therefore they can’t afford to die,” laments Williams. This “funeral poverty” is one of her motivations in creating the club. With a “People these days cannot afford to live, therefore they can’t afford to die,” laments Williams. This “funeral poverty” is one of her motivations in creating the club. With a maximum funeral grant from the government topping out at NZ $2,280.72, or US $1,440 (“not enough to do one leg,” she quips), many people do not have the resources to cover the average funeral costs in New Zealand, which some sources put as high as NZ $10,000 (US $6,314).

In the Kiwi Coffin Club’s building on Ti Street in Rotorua, a small team of dedicated volunteers builds and finishes coffins from scratch.

The coffin clubs proudly offer low-cost, no-frills boxes, or “quickies,” according to Williams. These have no embellishments, are painted in basic colors (white, cream, beige), and are kept in stock at both club locations for people who need a fast, affordable option.

For those who have more time to plan, there is no limit to the imagination, provided the coffins adhere to certain basic requirements. The clubs have designed countless coffins in the colors of favorite sports teams, with Rastafarian themes, and adorned with favorite pets, places, poetry, and pastimes. The family of a retired tram driver from Auckland designed his casket to look like a replica of the tram he drove for years, down to the name, number, and Auckland Transport logo. Many club members are on the second or third iteration of their coffins, having changed their minds over the years.

Diane Pye, 77, just completed her third coffin. Her second version, which she painted a bright pink during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, turned out to be too small — a realization she came to only after climbing inside to try it out. Ask anyone about the Coffin Club and inevitably the Elvis coffin will come up in conversation. Designed by member Raewynne Latemore, 77, the black and white masterpiece is an homage to her favorite heartthrob. She’ll even confide, with a giggle, that the inside of the lid is plastered with a giant picture of the King, so that he can be on top of her for all eternity. In the meantime, the coffin sits in her bedroom and serves as a dressing table.

Members of Coffin Club Rotorua meet every Wednesday to decorate coffins and catch up with friends over tea and snacks.

As expected, there are heartbreaking stories too. A four-year-old boy with a terminal illness requested a coffin designed as his favorite car, a Chevy Camaro (red with black stripes and silver wheels). A sister covered her little brother’s coffin with photos and words that chronicled their time together.

“I don’t know if it makes you happy, exactly,” says Kay Farrow, Secretary for the Kiwi Coffin Club Charitable Trust. “But it makes you feel good. When people come in and they’re in distress and they need a coffin, and you can sell them just what their mother would have wanted, it’s just a lovely feeling.”

Many club members first wandered through the doors out of a desire to create their own coffins but wound up staying for the strong sense of community. Both Rotorua clubs break for morning tea and conversation, but Coffin Club Rotorua has more of a social component, with members gathering weekly to chat, play games, celebrate birthdays, and connect with others, in addition to their work decorating coffins. Their numbers are very slowly rebounding to its pre-COVID-19 peak of about 50 regular attendees. For many, this outing is their only socialization of the week; during off hours, members visit and call those who feel unwell.

The club has spurred many conversations about death; members discuss everything from coffin design to funeral services. Some have designed their own funeral programs. There is plenty of laughter and good-natured ribbing, all of which helps people to feel at ease with a typically taboo topic.

“When I first arrived here I was actually really scared,” admits Bruce Brown, 72. “Because you’re so, so close to death. But now it doesn’t worry me, death doesn’t worry me. When I go, I go.”

Harold Gordon, 87

Jill Clark, 65

Dianne Pye, 78

Bruce Browne, 72

Dave Page, 79

Kay Farrow, 76

“When I first arrived here I was actually really scared,” admits Bruce Browne, 72. “Because you’re so, so close to death. But now it doesn’t worry me, death doesn’t worry me. When I go, I go.”

Browne, a retired truck driver who works in the Kiwi Coffin Club workshop, has built coffins for himself and his wife, who has can-cer. He keeps these coffins lined up against the wall in the spare bedroom. When his grandchildren visit, they are unconcerned with the unusual decor, an attitude they have adopted from him.

There’s clearly something very compelling about the coffin clubs, which have spread to a growing list of countries. Multiple articles, video stories, and TED talks chronicle the unique concept. A short musical with per-formances by the original Rotorua gang tells their story through singing, dancing, and elaborate set design.

Her recent star turn has been fun, but at the core Williams is still that same hospice nurse who wants to bring comfort to people confronting death.

She tells the story of a man who requested a coffin designed to look like a go-kart, be-cause he had always wanted one as a child. He was terminally ill and too weak to see the progress on the coffin in person, so he would send instructions and Williams would send pictures to update him. Those pictures went into a brag book he would show his friends and anyone who would listen.

“He didn’t actually see his coffin fully fin-ished,” says Williams. But he did, she believes, take immense joy in creating something so meaningful to him. She smiles and seems satisfied by that thought. “He went off with great style." ‚óŹ