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Coffins, urns and caskets

From personalised coffins featuring the deceased’s favourite things to wool and cotton caskets, coffins are changing. Stephanie Zia looks at the wide choice now available.

The coffin is the central focus of the funeral service. It represents the dignity of the deceased on their final journey to the grave in both an intensely symbolic and highly practical way. In Victorian times the well to do were buried in solid oak or elm coffins with heavy brass fittings and ornamentations whilst the poor were carried to their graves in a parish coffin, shared among the community and reused over many years. In these times of environmental and monetary concerns, the latter may well sound more attractive to many.

Environmental Issues Whilst nothing but the best is still often felt to be the least a grieving relative can provide, the most basic chipboard, 100% recycled newspaper or even cardboard coffin is also now widely acceptable and very few crematoriums reject them. If environmental issues are a major concern, though, it should be noted that cardboard does use up more fossil fuels than slow-burning wood and that formaldehyde is used in the manufacture of chipboard. If a more substantial wood is preferred or needed (to cover the regulations for transportation abroad, for instance), many coffins are now made with sustainable timber certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council).


Popular Choices The coffin most commonly offered is chipboard veneered in oak or mahogany with handles, a nameplate and, perhaps, a crucifix. These look like brass but are in fact made of a type of easily combustible plastic material. Plain chipboard, without veneer, can actually be cheaper than cardboard.  Many funeral directors can provide a coffin in plain sustainable chipboard or cardboard, which you collect and then decorate yourself (by painting, for instance, with water based paints). A simpler personalisation is for a favourite scarf, piece of batik or sports/college flag to be draped over the coffin. Alternatively, the funeral director can supply a rich velvet pall cover to cover the coffin during the service. Whilst many funeral directors, especially the old, long-established family firms, do sell coffins without the funerals, the usual practice is for the coffin to be priced with their services – advice, care of deceased, transportation, staff, and retrieval of the ashes, but excluding disbursements (flowers, crematorium, church fees etc.).

Caskets Caskets are the American style of coffin, rectangular rather than tapered, with special lining and a split lid for viewing. They can be made of wood, steel, solid bronze or finished in white enamel. Wooden caskets are usually made of oak or poplar.

Wicker and Willow Coffins An increasingly popular choice is wicker or willow coffins. They look great and are very eco-friendly as they are both carbon neutral and easily sustainable. They are now offered in a wide range of styles and colours, wicker coffins can be purchased through your funeral director or sometimes you can buy direct from the makers and have it delivered to the funeral director’s. This style also comes in bamboo, cane, seagrass, jute, water hyacinth and cocostick. These coffins are all biodegradeable and can be used in cremations and burials.

Homemade Coffins As environmental concerns and individuality are becoming more visible at funeral services, some people are choosing to make their own coffin. ‘Funeral directors are increasingly likely to accept a homemade coffin from you as long as it meets the anti-pollution requirements,’ says the Natural Death Centre.Somerset Willow Company and Musgrove Willows of Somerset even offer a weekend course where you weave your own willow coffin, which, they suggest, can be used as a storage unit until required.

Personaised Coffins Colourful Coffins offer families a very personal choice when it comes to choosing a coffin for their loved ones. The company pioneered bespoke and customised picture coffins. Some 90 per cent of the requests they handle involve customising coffins. This can involve the addition of family photographs, holiday pictures or even favourite hobbies or sport can be integrated into the design. Managing director, Mary Tomes says, ‘Many people tell us having a Colourful Coffin is seen as celebrating the life of the person they have lost’. The company also provide a service allowing people to pre-design their own Colourful Coffin if they so wish. Body Shop founder Anita Roddick was buried in a recycled paper coffin called the Ecopod. Designed by Hazel Selina, a natural birth specialist who has turned her attentions to natural death, these futuristic-looking 100 per cent biodegradable coffins are shaped like a seed pod and come in a variety of colours including silver or gold leaf.

Wool and Cotton Coffins The Natural Legacy Range by JC Atkinson, in partnership with Hainsworth Coffins, offers a unique design combining the highest environmental standards with an attractive and soft feel. These coffins are absolutely beautiful and arguably the most tactile of all coffins. Made in Yorkshire, the Wharfedale is made using plain or decorated to any design of your choosing the choice is yours.

Urns and Keepsakes If ashes are to be buried or kept at home, the choice of urn will be an important one. ‘A cremation-memorial urn is not only to keep ashes, it can hold a personal object, photograph, lock of hair, anything that is a personal reminder,’ says Cremation Urns and Keepsakes, the UK’s largest suppliers of urns and memorial products. ‘There are many urn styles, shapes and materials available but the main ones are marble, bronze, brass, wood and glass.’ The Bio-fiber urn by Fibrous is 100% bio-degradable, 60% plant fibre and starts to degrade within one year. The Bio-fiber urn is manufactured on the same principle as the Eco-pod. Fibrous has a large selection of biodegradable urns. Urns do not have to be purchased especially. A favourite item closely connected with the loved one’s life, a treasured wooden box, perhaps, or even a favourite teapot, may feel more apt.

Eco Coffins There are some very environmentally friendly coffins that are made from recycled paper and are extremely strong. They are available in modern designs and a wide range of colours, and as they are 100% biodegradeable are ideal for natural and traditional burial sites. Another revolution in coffin design is the Coffin Cover, a high quality wooden shell that covers the actual simple, biodegradable coffin for the duration of the service. There’s no charge for this because, like the parish coffin of Victorian times, it’s used over and over again.

Shrouds A shroud is a fabric used to cover a body in preparation for a burial or cremation, traditionally cotton, silk or wool are the most common materials used. Shrouds can be

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