Ageing with Attitude: Thinking outside the box for your funeral

HER cousins in Carlow and Dublin asked her if she had “lost her marbles” when 80-year-old Joyce McCullough sent them pictures of her standing beside her coffin. It was weird enough that she had actually invested in the deathly box; the fact that she had also decorated it with pictures of leprechauns had them proclaiming: “You’re certifiable!”

But Dublin-born Joyce who emigrated to New Zealand as a young woman back in the ’60s, had never made a saner decision: to gleefully embrace in advance, her inevitable exit from life — whenever that might be — by decorating the funereal furniture that would be accompanying her underneath the soil.

She’s not alone. Joyce is a member of The Kiwi Coffin Club, in Rotorua, central NZ, which was founded by local woman Katie Williams over ten years ago, as an alternative social community for older people.

“I came up with the idea at a meeting of University of the Third Age, a group that encourages new learning experiences and socialisation for the over 50s,” says 79-year-old Katie.

At the time she and others embarked on making their own coffins from scratch, but now they have volunteer retired carpenters and joiners who put together the simple boxes, before they get personalised by their owners.

As a former midwife and hospice nurse, Katie had experience of both ends of the spectrum of life. “I loved midwifery. Then I later ventured into being in hospice nursing, caring for terminally sick people,” she tells Feelgood.

“This, of course, is a natural transition of life. I had always treated both birth and death as a celebratory time — occasions to rejoice. Death is so much more, but the celebration of a human’s life should be acknowledged.”

Coming to the club to decorate their coffin, allows people be in control of their own “going away”, she points out. “There are family members involved in the plans - and often the decoration - and it has become a normal happening among our members and they love it. Normalising the inevitable is a way of saying ‘this is me, WOW!’. The idea of death has been very slow to be accepted. It’s time for a change and it is happening.”

So far, since that inaugural Coffin Club, about eight others have sprung up in her own country, with three more in Australia and one in Britain, says its founder.

“The average age of our club members would be 78-85, with quite a few in their 90s. The big part of the Coffin Club is the socialisation. About 50 to 60 people come to the weekly club day and the atmosphere is wonderful – lots of laughter and jocularity.”

But it has a deeper purpose too: “So many older people who have no family near and have lost their life partners, never get a loving touch. We appreciate this and all our darlings get greeted with cuddles and kisses. If anyone is not at Club someone will get in touch and see if they are OK. This is a spontaneous happening,” says Katie.

Helping to spread the message is a hilarious online musical and documentary featuring many of the free-spirited members of Katie’s club, whose average age she says, is in their late 80s to 90s.

If anyone had the thought that the Coffin Club was morbid, these video stars bury that one.

It starts with a contagiously catchy tune with opening lines that set the tone: “Once you get past 73, those funerals come too frequently... so pricey! And no personality. So I thought what’s the point of living a life that’s both colourful and bold. And then you’re told this is how your exit’s going to be?”

We get a glimpse at some of the personalised coffins too, some of them put to unusual tasks, while they are awaiting their final proper role. “Mine’s currently used as a sofa bed,” says one participant, as she stretches across the blue coffin topped with a matching mattress.

“I’m going down with Elvis,” sings another, showing off hers decorated with pictures of the king of rock ’n’ roll.

In one scene, Irish-born Joyce, can be spotted, with the leprechauns who will keep her in touch with her roots “down under”.

One of the singing stars, 91-year-old Geraldine Langford, who features lying in a coffin, at the beginning of the video, tells Feelgood: “I have done many hobby classes in my life because I enjoy learning new skills. When I heard of the Kiwi Coffin Club, my curiosity was aroused. It’s not one bit morbid – after I joined up, I was hooked. Out of all the clubs I have belonged to, this is the best.”

She has been busy too: “I have made three coffins and used none! One was used for my late husband. The second was given to a man, at the club, who fell in love with it and wanted to buy it. He was very happy. The third is stored in my garage and is for me!”

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