Profile: A serious undertaking

Lifestyle products don't just have to be for the living, says Kate Hilpern. Craig Cooper proves the point with his range of biodegradable coffins
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The Independent Online

How do you persuade people to buy a product they won't need until they're dead? It's a challenge facing Craig Cooper, director of Daisy Coffins. Having launched its 100 per cent natural and eco-friendly coffins last summer, the new family business based in Totnes, South Devon, also faces the difficulty of trying to enter a very established industry.

"Funeral directors are generally businesses that have been in the family for decades and have very set ways. So, even if you deal with the 25-year-old son who you think will be open minded, he'll still tend to be very traditional," explains Cooper.

Traditional, when it comes to coffins, generally means dark, wooden and veneer. But Cooper wants to inject some pizzazz into the sector. "Funerals are miserable enough, so why not have something more modern, softer and brighter?" he says.

Four years ago, Cooper was working in the handicraft business. He wanted to embark on a new project and a further three years of research led him, and six colleagues, including his dad, to produce coffins made from water hyacinth and banana leaf – both completely biodegradable materials.

"There is a lot of furniture already out there that's made out of this material. We thought, 'Why not use it for coffins?' It's about time the funeral industry started offering the same sort of choice – particularly around natural products – that other industries now do."

Cooper kicked off his market research by talking to funeral directors. "One in particular took a lot of time out to show me what's currently available and what she saw to be the problem with existing products. It was invaluable," he says.

Indeed, Daisy Coffins is not without its competition. Coffins are now available in anything from cardboard to bamboo to wicker. But this funeral director told Cooper that existing natural coffins often lack stability – a problem that doesn't bear thinking about at the memorial of a loved one.

"The last thing funeral directors want is even the slightest possibility of anything going wrong. They want 100 per cent functionality and that's where we decided to try and stand out," says Cooper, who explains that all Daisy Coffins have a soft but dependable wooden frame underneath.

Cooper also introduced the idea of personalisation. "We offer nameplates made from different woods, with engraving," he says.

The third identifying factor for Daisy Coffins is that every small detail is natural. "The lining is unbleached natural calico and even the screw that holds down the lid is wood rather than plastic."

There is also the fact that Daisy Coffins are cheerful looking, says Cooper. That might be going a bit far, but it has to be said that they don't look scary or austere – almost as if they would be more at home in a conservatory than a morgue.

Having put the product on the market last year, Cooper and his colleagues have been busy attending trade fairs and various public events, as well as launching a website. It is, for example, attending the Retirement Show, which comes to Manchester on 14 and 15 March. "So far so good – we've had a lot of interest," says Cooper.

Surprisingly perhaps, one of the events where Daisy Coffins attracted most enthusiasm was a recent retirement show. "They were a sprightly bunch of people who I suspected might be cynical about us being there. I thought these people have worked hard all their lives and they probably are looking to spend their money on a cruise or something. But 90 per cent of people who came up to us said things like, 'That's beautiful. I want one like that.'"

Nevertheless, Daisy Coffins still has a lot of work to do around creating greater awareness among the general public. "This is far from easy when people don't like talking about death," admits Cooper. "In addition, we still have a lot of work to do to get funeral directors on board."

Fortunately for Cooper, funeral plans are becoming increasingly popular. He is also focusing on the Daisy Coffins brand and getting it more widely known. "All our coffins have a dried daisy on them to make them identifiable as a brand. We obviously need to invest in marketing around this brand, although as a new business we need to be careful about what we do with our money. We've already had to invest in a large warehouse full of coffins because our product may need to be sent out at very short notice."

Ideally, Cooper would like to help turn the perception of coffins into a lifestyle product. "Why not? If people have choice throughout their lives about wallpaper, cars and clothes, so why not add coffins to the list? This is an inspirational product that does appeal to a lot of people and their values."

He admits that even with the best will in the world, most people will fall short of storing their coffin in their garden shed or garage. "There's no reason people can't think ahead to what kind of coffin they'd like when the time comes and make arrangements in advance."