“We’re Meant to Carry Each Other”

Shroud hand-made by Chris, a steward at White Eagle Memorial Preserve.

DIY Coffin Clubs, Handmade Caskets and Shrouds

Some retirees join bowling teams or bridge clubs. But every Tuesday night in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, several dozen gather to engage in what the New York Times reports is “a hobby that has gathered followers across New Zealand” – building coffins.

The Hawke’s Bay D.I.Y. Coffin Club has 120 members, average age in their mid-70s. Following the lead of a palliative care nurse who started the country’s first coffin club in her backyard, the clubs build the coffins from particleboard kits that cost around $170.

More than a good deal, getting together to build coffins with others builds community.

“We have a heap of fun,” Grace Terry told the New York Times. “I’ve seen people come alive making their own coffins. It’s very social.”

The clubs aren’t just about building your own coffin (which are often decorated elaborately and may be used as seating – with the addition of cushions – until the time comes for their primary purpose). People return again and again to help other build theirs, or to make coffins for those who can’t afford one.

“It gives us old fellas something of interest, something to do,” the chairman of the Hawke’s Bay club told the Times. “But it also serves a purpose.”

Marcus Daly of the Vashon Island Coffin Company, who is reviving the craft of hand building solid wood coffins, speaks to the importance of being hands on with this aspect of care for our dead. “We’re meant to carry each other,” he says. “One of the most important aspects of the coffin is that it can be carried. We want to know we’ve played a part and that we’ve shouldered our burden.”

It’s part of the stewardship offered by the community that supports White Eagle Memorial Preserve in Goldendale, Washington. A conservation burial ground, White Eagle was created on the grounds of Ekone Ranch when ranch founder Ray Mitchell, beloved as “a hard working, Earth loving, horse-whispering, community building, teacher, leader and visionary” died in 2008. Along with creating a burial ground that sustains his vision of protecting and sharing the land in community, his community members taught themselves to build caskets from pine milled on the land and sew shrouds from favorite fabrics.

June 10th is the second year anniversary of the death of my dear friend Marcy Westerling. She directed her sister to hand-sew her shroud, and her brother to make a lowering board, which he built from a tree grown on his property. We told the cemetery we didn’t need a lowering device to release her body to the bottom of her grave. We carried her body and felt the weight of her death every step of the way, every inch down into the ground that received her.

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