When the pallbearers at a recent New Zealand funeral carried the casket into the chapel, the congregation gasped, but then erupted into laughter.
The coffin was not the usual mahogany brown box with cream handles. It was a giant cream doughnut – a pastry treat for which the deceased was considered a connoisseur.
Afterwards, when friends and family gathered for sausage rolls and cups of tea, they all agreed that the newly departed had got the last laugh.
“That was his way of saying, don’t forget me guys,” said Ross Hall, who crafted the colourful coffin as part of his business, Dying Art.
“The way of having funerals now has changed so radically,” said Hall, when he spoke to HelloCare from his studio in New Zealand.
“Death is probably the biggest event in your life and it’s been so structured and formatted – you can only do this, you can only sing these six hymns, you can only have this brown casket – but the world’s changed.
“Once upon a time it was the mourning of the dead. Now people are starting to get to grips with having a celebration of a life.”
The cream doughnut was the brainchild of Hall’s cousin, who came to him with the idea.
“He said, ‘I want to go out in a cream doughnut’, and I said, ‘I’ll make you one.’”
“You’re allowed to do that sort of stuff now. If you want to do something a bit different, there’s nothing stopping you.”
Hall has now been building and decorating personalised, colourful coffins for 15 years.
The idea came to him when he sat down to write his own will, and was asked if he wanted to be buried or cremated.
“It’s probably one of the most serious questions anyone’s ever asked me. I started thinking about what I wanted at my funeral. A brown mahogany box wasn’t on my list, so I wrote into my will that I wanted a red casket with flames on it, because at that stage I thought I knew where I was going.
“Then I started to think, ‘I can’t be the only silly bugger who thinks like that. There must be others out there who don’t just want a brown box.’”
Hall mocked up 20 designs and took them around to local funeral directors.
“They all looked at me with one eyebrow raised, and said ‘I don’t think so’.”
But since then, interest has built gradually, and in the last five years, people have increasingly wanted personalised funerals, including a personalised casket.
“People have started to say, ‘We want something personalised for our dad’,” Hall shared.
Hall said it’s a “privilege” to be included in a family’s efforts to memorialise their loved one at their funeral.
“By the time a family comes to us, and we’ve spoken to them, we’ve got all of their pictures and all of their memories that we’ve put together as a story about that person’s life. At the end of that, we really know the person who’s going to go in that casket. We’ve been privileged to their whole life story.”
Flowers are the best-selling caskets, followed closely by scenery. There has been a fire engine casket with flashing lights, and a leopard print casket with an LED trim that will remain lit for 30 days after burial.
Some caskets are personalised with family portraits or pictures of pets.
“We had a client not long ago, and her mum had passed away. It sounds like her mum was a bit of an Imelda Marcus, and she had thousands of pairs of shoes. So the daughter got every pair of shoes she had, and took hi-resolution photos of them, and we put them together as a montage. When they took her casket into the chapel, they had her three favourite pairs of shoes on top of it, rather than a bed of flowers, and her whole casket was covered with her shoes.
“To me, that is knowing the person, it’s so personal. That was her passion.
“We did one for a gentleman who had passed away. He lived in Auckland but he had a holiday home up north and he would sit on his deck and look over the beautiful bay. The family gave us hi-resolution photos taken from the deck.
“His daughter came back to see me a few weeks after the funeral, and she said, ‘You know Ross, that summed up my dad so well and all the people who knew my dad, knew that that was where he loved to be. That was his happy spot.
“I love doing stuff like that for people. I feel like I’m giving something back.”
Delivering a personalised coffin to a grieving family “brings tears to my eyes,” Hall said.
“It’s a passion project. I feel so good to be able to put a smile on grieving people’s faces.”
So, what about the red coffin with flames?
“I’ve changed my mind,” said Hall. “I’m going to have a clear perspex casket with a white sheepskin rug.”
Hall said his kids have told him they won’t be coming to his funeral if that is the case, especially after he threatened to wear his favourite leopard skin g-string.
“I said, ‘That’s fine, you’ll miss out on a great show.’”
Funnily enough, yesterday Hall received a call from China. It was the manufacturer of clear caskets.
“I’m going to order one,” he said.