“See you next week… with a bit of luck.”
The cheery and optimistic farewell brought big chuckles from members of the Community Coffin Club in the north-west Tasmania town of Ulverstone.
Jokes about death and dying are common-place here. The inevitable is approached in good humour.
Every Thursday a bunch of like-minded people get together for fun times, companionship, coffin making and learning. The group also provides a wide range of reading material and ‘death literacy’ resources for anyone who may drop in.
Coffin club member Ed King and I bonded over Kingston biscuits. A guest of the club, I’d been invited to talk about and my funeral planning guide, The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, and my cemetery wanderings. There’s always cakes and biscuits at these things and Ed and I were happily devouring the Kingstons one after the other.
An artist, sculptor and painter, Ed has been attending a well-provisioned shed to work on his coffin every other Thursday for the past two years or so.
“I’m on my way out,” he declares.
While his early onset dementia leaves Ed struggling to find some of his words as we chat, he’s engaging, witty and warm.
“Sometimes I can’t get up, sometimes I can’t do anything, but today I can talk,” he grins.
Six hours a week he’s assisted by support worker David and it’s clear Ed enjoys the time they spend together.
They share a love of art and enjoy bouncing ideas off one another.
“I look forward to it,” Ed says earnestly.
“And I look forward to it too,” David replies.
They both reminisce and shake their heads about their first attempts to build Ed’s coffin.
“The first coffin didn’t quite work. It was a bit flimsy. We used the wrong wood,” says David.
But Ed’s second coffin is coming along nicely. He’s a creative artist so it’s no surprise that there are interesting little twists added to his coffin.
Coffins and company
But, as Ed explains, Thursdays aren’t just about building coffins. They’re about companionship.
“Everyone’s here for the same thing. You have a bit of a laugh. You meet people and you’re all in the same pot. We’re all going down eventually.”
I asked Ed how he’d describe the coffin he’s making.
“Getting there,” he quipped, which received widespread chuckles around the group.
“I can’t afford to buy my own boat. So we started to turn it more into a boat than a coffin,” he said, which explains why there is a rudder, made of King Billy pine, at the feet end of the coffin. Or should that be the stern?
The coffin itself is made from a combination of timbers – recycled pallets, a little bit of huon pine, and some wood that Ed had in his shed.
“I got it for free, it’s oregon pine, beautiful. They were pulling down some old buildings and I got this and put it away for 18 years.”
As well as a rudder at the coffin’s stern, a set of horns will decorate the bow.
There are two shallow holes drilled into the coffin’s bow, just behind where the horns will be positioned.
“They’re for the two pennies. You know, to pay the ferryman,” Ed grins, clearly amused by this creative and mythical addition.
Ed is quick to point out the help he’s received to build his coffin, er… boat.
“Dave is great, fantastic. He’s the engine of this thing,” he said gratefully.
Knowing his early onset dementia will bring about his death sooner rather than later, Ed faces his mortality very practically.
“I’m going to be cremated and chucked in the ocean, I hope.”
Because of restrictions at the crematorium, the horns and the rudder have been made so they can easily be removed. Ed’s two young sons will be able to keep those.
“David’s got it built so that as soon as it’s time to ‘go under’, they can just pick it up and the boys can take it (the horns and the rudder) with them.”
Shrouded in art
As an artist, Ed has travelled widely and has an extensive body of work from his overseas wanderings.
“I did do drawings in France, Spain and all over England, and all over the world really.”
David explained that Ed will be laid to rest in the coffin, wrapped in some of this artwork.
“A lot of the canvases that Ed painted, lovely churches, cathedrals and things, have a really lovely Gothic feel to them. There’s a lovely lady who’s cutting them up and stitching them together to make a shroud for Ed,” he said.
Ed nods and smiles knowingly at me. Again, he seems chuffed with this idea, chuffed to be sharing it with me, and chuffed to have a mate like David who’s able to help him when the words won’t come.
And support worker David’s more than happy to spend a couple of hours on Thursdays at the Community Coffin Club with Ed.
“The feel of this place and the way they make you feel when you come here, it’s fantastic,” said David.
“And there’s lots of coffee and cakes,” interjects a smiling Ed.
The Community Coffin Club meets at the Central Coast Community Shed at the Ulverstone Showgrounds from 10 on Thursdays. All are welcome.
ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$8 is payable for overseas orders). She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.