The original Coffin Club started when a group of Rotorua friends questioned why a coffin needs to cost $5,000 – after all, “it's just a box”. They took it upon themselves to build their own personalised versions in a friendly, social environment where they celebrate life. In the light-hearted weekly meetings members socialise, help one another with building and decorating, but also discuss death and planning for the ‘last farewell’. The club has inspired other communities around New Zealand, Australia, and the United States to start their own.
When I first heard about the Coffin Clubs, I was equal parts disturbed and fascinated. A club of elderly individuals who spend time together building personal containers to hold their bodies after death. When one thinks about it in such blatant terms, it seems quite gruesome. In truth, the Coffin Club is the direct opposite of grim – it is full of life, joy, family, humour, and love.
There were many reasons that Coffin Clubs came into existence, first in Rotorua, then caught on across the globe. Many people don’t want to put the burden of choosing a coffin on their family – who would already be grieving and going through enough pain. 0n top of that, coffins can be exorbitantly expensive. For many people, putting such money into something that is just going to be buried in the ground seemed like a wasteful, squandering of money.
So, the Coffin Club came into existence, but then it became so much more. It became a way for people to bond together, to face the inevitable not alone, or with fear and denial, but head on, with an open acceptance full of humour, grace, memories, and love.
Each coffin is unique, and an extension of who that person is. One charismatic and lively woman who has an unending love of Elvis Presley has a large portrait of him on the inside of her coffin, facing her for eternity. Another woman painted pictures of all the places she ever visited through her life, and while in service, on her army-green coffin. And one coffin, made by a man who spent his life working with wood and building, is so exquisitely detailed, made with a variety of woods and inlays, that his coffin is a true piece of artwork to behold.
Each person puts something of themselves into these coffins – it’s about memories, experience, personality and not about the most coins being spent. And while they do this, they meet others, and their lives become fuller because of the new friendships created. The Coffin Club became more than just about building coffins, but became a place of support for each other outside the club and into everyday life.
Photographing these members was a lesson in life. When you’re surrounded by people who are in the midst of planning for the literal end of their life, it makes you begin to contemplate your own end and existence in very different and unusual ways. You begin to wonder, “Could I do this?”, “Could I laugh, and joke, and hug, while building a box for my body?”, or “Will I be as graceful and brave?” Of course you can’t ever truly know until your time – but it certainly makes you want to be as brave and as graceful.
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