Tea and sympathy or coffee and conversation at the Coffin Club?

Maria Methorst second from left with three of her 17 children (L-R) Roel Methorst, Fiona Methorst and Patricia Viney

Maria Methorst second from left with three of her 17 children (L-R) Roel Methorst, Fiona Methorst and Patricia Viney

Arranging a funeral used to be a business-like and sombre affair, but times are changing and people are beginning to put their personal touches to this emotional final farewell. Gay Liddington has been hearing about how to make things bearable, and even therapeutic, through the Coffin Club.

There is ongoing debate regarding the funeral industry. Regulation or deregulation?  Does less regulation provide more scope to the end user or does increased regulation provide less wroughts?

No doubt this debate will continue on its roller coaster ride. In the meantime, innovative endeavours find solid ground and an army of supporters.

I grew up in an era where it was unthinkable to talk about death and dying. Generally, children did not attend funerals.

My beloved Nana died when I was five years old. Just over a year later my baby brother and favourite uncle passed away in the same month. My memories of that time are like looking into a broken mirror. One day they were there and then they weren’t. People around me were crying, me and my siblings had to be quiet. We didn’t understand why.

How different it could have been had we been included in the ceremony to farewell our loved ones. We could have felt the sadness and gained understanding rather than being left with a chasm of confusion.

Sixty years on I see we are emerging from an era where the ‘adults only’ funeral protocol with sombre suits and black clothing is fading into the background.

Promotions from a competitive funeral industry and the emergence of multi-faceted media have gone a long way to initiating conversation and creativity about such matters.

Coffin Clubs in New Zealand was recently brought to my attention. The first of which was founded by former palliative care nurse Katie Williams in 2010. This idea appealed to my warped sense of humour and prompted me to explore further.

The idea was to bring seniors out of the closet and into the casket so to speak! Members gather in an atmosphere where creativity abounds amid cuddles, cupcakes, cuppas and music.

Those with woodworking skills teach their craft. Artists share their talents and techniques. Above all, friendships are founded and conversations about mortality are woven into living stories. Death becomes part of life.

Following on from the New Zealand example, Australia’s first Coffin Club was established in Ulverstone, Tasmania in 2016. The Lion’s Club, Central Coast Council and the District Nurses lent their support.

I spoke with social worker Lynne Jarvis about their Community Coffin Club.

“It was an initiative of Care Beyond Cure, a group that assists people with a diagnosed progressive illness…someone who may be in the last year or two of their life.

“People come along once a fortnight often with a carer and have free access to beautiful sessions like reflexology, massage, art, Tai Chi, yoga and mindfulness.

“Our Coffin Club came about as an identified need from a person attending the group.”

Lynne is one of many volunteers with Care Beyond Cure and a lead volunteer with the Ulverstone Community Coffin Club. She had long known about the New Zealand endeavour through visiting her sister in Rotorua and explains the dynamics of the group.

“It’s not like other clubs in the sense of accumulating members. We have about five regulars including a mentor and his assistant who come along every week.

“Individuals who make a coffin are always members even after they leave, because they’ve been through the process.

“People can craft a coffin that is a piece of furniture. Last April we made a bookcase coffin to raffle at Eco Fest,” said Lynne while I couldn’t help but smile at the mind-bending idea of raffling a coffin.

Lynne says that their Coffin Club provides an opportunity for families to come together.

“It is important for people to be aware that it can be fun. However, you can’t take away from the fact that at times there are people with terminal illnesses and their families are making a coffin for their loved one. That particular process is just totally amazing for everyone involved.

“At one point, two daughters from a family of 17 children started making their mother a coffin. The mother came the first time and at one point there were about 11 family members including a great, great grandchild helping make that coffin. It was absolutely gorgeous.”

Lynne owns up to not having any great woodworking skills however, she is the chief photographer. Photographs of the process of making the coffin are made into a DVD and set to their theme song, Sia’s ‘Angel by the Wings’.

I enquired as to the social aspect of the Ulverstone club.

“Cake? When we remember to bring one to share,” said Lynne with a note of humour.

“People can actually call in…they don’t even have to be making a coffin. They can just come for a chat and see what we are doing. Next year we hope to have other sessions in the social room that will be running alongside the Coffin Club.”

It seems that Ulverstone’s Community Coffin Club has sparked off a wave of interest in Australia. In 2018 two new club’s will be launched in Tasmania and one in Victoria.

I spoke with friends and asked their thoughts on the notion of a local Coffin Club. Expressions like time-share and coffin hopping were offered. Colourful Maleny character, 77-year-old Cheryl Laizans said, “I think it would take off like wildfire. After all, we do live in geriatric heaven up here!

Imagine telling your grandchildren you belong to a Coffin Club, its purpose and meaning. Might they attend a session and make their artistic mark on your casket? Then when the time comes for that person to farewell you they know firsthand what it’s about and have played a part in your story.

Treat yourself to glitter, glam and a laugh with a NZ Coffin Club’s musical video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsmWV3vzni4

For further information:

www.facebook.com/CommunityCoffinClub/

www.facebook.com/CareBeyondCure/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/22/the-coffin-club-elderly-new-zealanders-building-their-own-caskets

http://www.dyingtoknowday.org/stories/2017/7/21/australias-first-coffin-club