Last year, Paula Crofts could not think what to give her mother for Christmas, and then she hit upon the perfect solution: a coffin. Though this present might have been interpreted by some as a rather heavy hint, her mother was thrilled and the large wooden casket was immediately put to its intended use as a shoebox. "My mother was a dancer and she has hundreds of pairs of shoes, so I thought she could use it to store them," Paula explained.
While she was making the coffin on the kitchen table it was much admired, and the idea for a shop selling coffins which doubled as furniture followed soon after its completion. The result is Heaven on Earth, the UK's first interior design shop dedicated to death and its attendant paraphernalia.
However, the shop is just one of a growing number of funeral outlets prepared to cater for people who feel that the traditional solid wood coffin, with brass handles and satin lining, is too vulgar or ostentatious, and not a true reflection of their personalities.
Heaven on Earth's coffins start at about pounds 150 for the most basic, while the hand-painted ones are about pounds 400. Paula specialises in caskets - simple oblong boxes - as these are less alarming to have in the home, as well as being more versatile. A pattern book contains all the current designs so people can walk into the shop and select what they want. Most of her patterns are stencil-based, but she can produce a range of paint effects and has a number of other artists on her books.
"We see coffins as an interior design concept," she said. "You buy them now and use them as functional decorative pieces, and when you die your coffin is essentially free. We are always getting orders for customised designs, and people can buy the basic coffin to take home and decorate with family photographs or whatever is appropriate. We are designing coffins for all sorts of uses. You can fix a rollerblind to the front and have shelves inside." Other designs include a wine rack and a spice cupboard.
If this buy-now-die-later approach to coffins strikes you as morbid, then the shop will come as something of a surprise: "Most people who come in here have no idea what we do - they are attracted by the look of the place but don't realise what we sell."
The walls are lilac and the flagstone floors are covered with kilims, silk towers are artfully arranged in vases and huge church candles are bundled together with Conran-like simplicity. Closer inspection reveals brass coffin handles and bowls of bright coffin nails; the decorative wrought-iron hangings turn out to be French grave decorations.
For those who cannot face organising their own funerals but do not want to end up gift-wrapped in polyester and glossy oak, coffin painter Lisette de Roche suggests they put a note to that effect in their will. She is one of a number of artists represented by Vic Fearn & Co, a Nottingham- based coffin manufacturer, and her designs are bestsellers in its alternative range.
Lisette started coffin painting via restoration. At a funeral it occurred to her that coffins were the perfect candidates for her paint-effect finishes. There was a market for her work from the start. (Vic Fearn & Co now receives about 50 enquiries a week for painted coffins.) Her most popular design, the Robert Adam, is a traditional coffin painted black and decorated with delicate gold swags.
Lisette, like Paula Crofts, is happy to take commissions and is working on coffins in the Millwall team colours for Barry Albin Ltd. "I'm assuming they are for the fans, not the players," she said. A Somerset farmer has expressed interest in the idea of a coffin with a flock of sheep. Once you start to think about personalities and hobbies, the options for decoration are endless. The idea of the farmer counting his sheep as he sleeps for eternity seems more appropriate than an elaborate solid oak casket with all the brass trimmings.
Lisette's interest does not end with the external details. "I want to buy some decent rolls of raw silk and make some linings. So many coffins have a hideous taffeta polyester mix, ghastly lacy stuff. I want superb raw silk for my designs."
To go off in style seems a natural desire and yet, according to the Natural Death Centre (NDC), a charity set up to support those dying at home and to help them plan their funerals, the majority of people do not leave any plans for their funerals. The grieving relatives are left to trust to the local funeral parlour, and for many the idea of shopping around seems crass. The fact that there are a number of companies prepared to track down personalised coffins is not commonly known, yet Vic Fearn & Co regularly sells through the trade.
So who are these people who order their own coffin and plan their own funeral? According to Lisette, they are quite a down-to-earth bunch. "I am usually approached by families, only occasionally is it the person who is near death," she said. "I was worried about how I would cope when taking orders from very sick people, that it would be terribly upsetting. But strangely, the people who come to choose their own coffins are terribly positive and very pragmatic about it all."
Barbara Huelin and her husband can certainly be classified as that. Ten years ago they began to think about their funeral plans and found the options limited, particularly as they wanted to organise the whole affair, not just the coffins.
"We didn't like the big coffins with satin linings and huge gilt handles," said Barbara. "We thought we might be able to buy a couple of plain coffins without taking up the full funeral package." She went to every funeral parlour in Oxford and none of them would agree to sell the coffin without the funeral: "They were very surprised that I should want to do such a thing."
She returned home without a coffin but no less determined to get what she wanted. "In the end, I told my husband that he would have to make them and he'd better get on with it. He was 78 at the time and I thought he might pop off before it was done."
They bought sheets of block board from their local DIY store and took it in turns to stand against the boards to be measured. "The coffins are absolutely straightforward, traditional coffin shapes, beautifully made. The handles are made of yachting rope, and because we happened to have some green paint they are both painted fir green. A friend decorated the lid of mine with red poppies and my husband's is plain."
A local carpenter heard what they were up to and offered them cedarwood shavings as a sweet-smelling lining. These are now bagged up and wait in the shed along with the coffins. "The lid of my coffin hangs on the shed wall like a painting and I see it every day. It is all very matter of fact, something we did together." The total cost of the Huelins' coffins was about pounds 50 each, which is cheaper than any other coffins on the market. Word spread. They got so many enquiries from people wanting to do the same that David Huelin drew up his design for the Natural Death Handbook, available from the NDC.
Although the Huelins' funeral arrangements do not include pall bearers or a funeral director, they have gone for a traditional funeral plot: "It's a double-decker grave in a sunny spot near the potting shed. There is a bench there and we like to think this is where the grave diggers sit to eat their sandwiches."
Barbara thinks that making your own arrangements can be therapeutic. "When one of us has to pop off, there will be a nice feeling about it. The coffins are part of the furniture now and there is nothing frightening about them. There is no knowing how one will be affected, I just imagine that the grieving will be that much easier."
Heaven on Earth, 47 Picton St, Bristol BS6 5PZ (0117 942 1836). Vic Fearn & Co, Crabtree Mill, Hempshill Lane, Bulwell, Nottingham NG6 8PF (0115 977 1571). The Natural Death Centre, 20 Heber Road, London NW2 6AA (0181-208 2853)
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