Why New Zealanders Love DIY Coffins

For the nearly departed, a new bucket-list entry: “Build my casket”

Rami Niemi

There are coffins, and then there is the Batesville Z94, better known as the Promethean. This bronze sarcophagus weighs 310 pounds; trimmings include gold-plated hardware, “Rumba Red” velvet upholstery, and a finish so shiny that pallbearers will be able to see their reflections. Price: up to $45,000, depending on the retailer. Remember Aretha Franklin’s golden casket? That was a Promethean.

Now imagine a different type of casket: a humble wooden box built alongside a small community of like-minded souls who are choosing to embrace life by preparing for death, board by board. That’s what’s happening at various “coffin clubs” founded in New Zealand in recent years. Members start by selecting a coffin style (the classic “toe pincher” seems to be enjoying a revival). Next, the measuring and sawing of wood begins (MDF—think IKEA furniture—is common). After gluing and drilling comes the decision about how basic or elaborate the exterior should be (themes have ranged from hand-painted nature scenes to Elvis).

The trend started in the town of Rotorua, on New Zealand’s North Island. With its eerie volcanic landscapes and pungent sulfur odor (a consequence of its geysers and hot springs), it is perhaps as fitting a place as any to contemplate one’s mortality. According to its mission statement, the Kiwi Coffin Club, established there in 2010, provides an “environment in which issues of death and loss can be raised, addressed, understood and accepted through discussion, support and the activity of painting and lining your own coffins.”

Soon, coffin clubs were popping up elsewhere in New Zealand. The five-year-old Katikati Coffin Club, which today boasts a robust membership of 213 (16 former members are deceased), meets every Wednesday morning. More than a woodworking class, more than a therapy group for people suffering from existential dread, the club is also a lively social hub, insists its treasurer, John Russell. “We had a TV crew come to film one of our meetings thinking it would be formal, but they were astonished to see that it was a cuppa and a biscuit,” he told me. “We chat about everything but death and dying—it’s a great atmosphere.”

Copycats have since begun launching in Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. The Cleveland Community Coffin Club, which is scheduled to open later this year, already has a waiting list; applicants range from curious 16-year-olds to octogenarians. “We have become death-phobic in our daily living,” its founder, Adaire Petrichor, told me. “This is a way for people to be useful while exploring our greatest fear.”

David Giffels, a writer based in Akron, Ohio, thinks coffin-making can demystify the final passage. In his 2018 book, Furnishing Eternity, he chronicles the five-year journey of making his own pine coffin with help from his father. It now stands sentry in the hallway next to his bedroom, offering a constant reminder that life is finite. He has tried it on for size. “When you put yourself in that space, you realize how small you are—not just physically, but in relation to the universe,” he told me. “All of us are just something that ends up in a box someday.”

This article appears in the August 2019 print edition with the headline “DIY Coffins.”