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13 April 2024

Crazy Coffins break British silence about death

Visitors photograph various custom designed coffins, during the "Death - Festival for the Living" exhibit, at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Crazy Coffins, an offshoot of a Nottingham-based traditional coffin and urn maker which took on a new identity in the 1990s when people began asking to customise their final resting places, presents uncanny coffins as part of the exhibit. (AFP)


British pensioner Malcolm Brocklehurst loves Blackpool Football Club and his former profession of aircraft engineer, and he has no plans to abandon them in death.

So his final home will be a coffin shaped like a plane, painted bright orange and emblazoned with the Blackpool logo.

"I want a fun funeral. I don't want people crying and that," the 77-year-old told AFP as he leaned happily on his casket, on show at London's Royal Festival Hall as part of an event titled "Death: A Festival for the Living".

The wings of his plywood coffin are removable, Brocklehurst points out, for easier access to his local crematorium, where he has asked that he be sent to the incinerator with the World War II cry: "Chocks away!"

It is the work of Crazy Coffins -- an offshoot of a Nottingham-based traditional coffin and urn maker which took on a new identity in the 1990s when people began asking to customise their final resting places.

A commission for a pearlescent coffin for the late British TV presenter Paula Yates, who died in 2000, helped make the firm famous, as did several appearances in the press.

"I don't think there is anything we can't make," said David Crampton, the firm's managing director.

"The customers are the designers: we just make what they ask. We say to people, 'There's a choice in that final decision'."

Crampton's firm has made coffins and urns in the shapes of Viking boats, cars -- including a Rolls Royce Phantom with working wheels -- skateboards, a cork and a kite.

Many of their creations are now six feet under, but others have been commissioned by people who are still alive and well but planning their own farewells in advance.

Several of these are on show at the event, including a shining casket shaped like a ballet shoe which belongs to Pat Cox, 70, a former nurse and amateur dancer.

"My grandfather was a pianist (who) had regular work at a ballet school, and one of my earliest memories is of sitting cross-legged by the piano watching little feet in pink ballet shoes," Cox said.

Cox first contacted Crazy Coffins with a view to planning an eco-friendly funeral, and ended up designing her ballet-pump casket, which the firm made from taffeta on a pine frame.

"It breaks the taboo to have something light-hearted," she said.

Her comment echoes a belief expressed by funeral directors at the event that Britons, known for their reserve, find it hard to discuss with their families how they would like their death to be marked.

Jude Kelly, artistic director of the festival, says in her introduction that "most of us ordinary mortals find discussing (death) quite tricky".

But the topic has come to the fore in a series of recent books including Sarah Murray's "Making an Exit", a survey of death rituals around the world, and the festival itself also aims to help break the silence.

A reluctance to talk about death is not only unhealthy but can lead to stress when families have to organise a funeral, said Andy Derriman, a Brighton funeral director.

"We're a reserved nation," said Derriman.

"No one really thinks about their own funeral until it's too late. We'd much rather people gave themselves time to think."

Crazy Coffins' director John Gill said most customers are the families of people who have already died, but this often means coffin-making must be rushed - so the firm's website urges that customers "Buy first, die later".

Coffin owner Brian Holden, 83, turned to designing his own casket as a distraction after the death of his wife.

The pair adored trains and often travelled on the Northern Belle, a vintage locomotive that tours scenic parts of Britain, so Holden chose a coffin shaped like one of its carriages.

"I've got six train tours booked for the coming year," Holden said. "One day I'll miss one of them, but I'll be able to catch that instead. I'll always end up in the Northern Belle."

Crazy Coffins staff say the growing popularity of their creations is a sign that people are becoming more open on the topic of their final exit - as is the crowds of visitors at the event who pose for photos with, and even in, coffins.

One customer, a young man dying of AIDS, commissioned a casket with a glass top so he could use it as a coffee table until his death, managing director Crampton said.

"It was his way of saying to his friends, 'Don't worry about me, this is where I'll be,'" he added.

He said that customers are also becoming more imaginative in areas like hearses, coffin wear and funeral songs.

"Things are changing in our profession, and not only in coffins," he said.