Injecting some life into the business of death

Our dearly beloved Vaughn Davis ponders both his own mortality and the design opportunities the funeral industry presents as he visits an innovative West Auckland coffin maker.

Return To Sender co-founder Leanne Holdsworth doesn’t so much laugh as cackle. And she does it a lot, which probably means it’s a good thing this West Auckland craft coffin maker doesn’t have a lot to do with her end users.

It’s possible, I guess, that her laughter is just a reaction to the jokes I’m cracking to try and break the spell of being surrounded by racks and racks of empty boxes that will soon be filled with dead dudes, then either left to rot in the ground or (more often, these days) go up in smoke at some crematorium. But I needn’t have bothered, really, because there isn’t much of a spell to break. To walk into Return To Sender’s ordinary industrial unit (roller door, office with mismatched chairs out front, lots of sawdust) you could mistake it for a cabinetmaker or maybe an outfit building sailing dinghies. Aside from the one carry-on-bag-sized baby coffin on the shelf (“we always need to keep one in stock”) there’s nothing morbid about the place, and any Westie Goths breaking in for a midnight coffin party would probably go home before they’d finished their first Vodka Cruiser.

My favourite coffin, and it says something about the place and the couple running it that five minutes after walking in I have one, is the ‘apple box’. You won’t find it on the website, I’m told, but for me, this rough-sawn plain rectangular pine box looks like just the thing. “Would you fill it with apples if I bought one?” I ask Leanne and her business partner and husband Greg. We’d certainly think about it, they reply, politely.

It’s not all coffins, though. Those post-crematorium ashes have to go somewhere, so Return To Sender makes around 5,000 little plywood boxes every year for the budget-conscious bereaved to keep their remains in. And those half-sized ones on that shelf there? They’re not, as I wondered, for children or pets (although I may have half-convinced the Holdsworths to look into the probably quite lucrative pet coffin market) but for families who can’t agree on who gets the ashes. Who knew?

Distinctive design forms a big part of the Return to Sender business but, in keeping with the rest of the industry, the coffins themselves aren’t branded. Leanne and Greg see a lost opportunity here, especially as coffins are almost always bought through a funeral director. The funeral director’s catalogue Leanne showed me featured a couple of pages of the company’s designs, but without any mention of the company that made them.

Greg and Leanne are currently working on the problem. They’re certainly not out to bypass the funeral directors, but they’d like people to know who made the coffin they’ve chosen, so are looking at subtle branding options.

“We’ll probably do something with a shell inlay,” Greg muses, before a roll of Leanne’s bottom-line-focused eyes (she looks after the money side of things) shuts him down. While it’s the canoe-like bent plywood Artisan model that Greg’s most passionate about, the more conventional ‘box’ caskets are big sellers, too, with the solid rimu coffin leading the pack. And that’s kind of appropriate, because Greg’s reaction to the artificial materials that pervade the funeral industry was one of the drivers behind setting up the business.

The couple were in Europe for their OE, but had to come home when Leanne’s father died. It was when Greg was standing by the coffin that he felt something wasn’t quite right. “I touched the metal handle and it wasn’t cold like metal would be. Turned out it was chromed plastic. And then when I looked at the wood, it was just MDF with a wood grain on it, like an office desk.” Leanne’s father was a boatbuilder, and it struck Greg that the last thing he would have wanted after spending his life working with timber would be to be buried in a fake wood box.

A few years after that, Greg’s father died, too. For years, Greg and his dad had planned to drink a special bottle of bourbon together but had never gotten around to it, so when the body got home Greg pulled up a chair and cracked the open the bottle. The problem was, the high sides of the traditional coffin meant that when he was sitting next to it all he could see of his dad was his nose. (And, presumably, you don’t want to be standing up for long if you’re drinking half a bottle of bourbon.)

It was these two ideas – natural materials and a more open place for the body to lie – that led to Greg’s first design, the Artisan. With the lid on, it looks a bit like a rather lovely bread bin. Without the lid it’s more like a handcrafted stretcher crossed with a wooden kayak. It’s Return To Sender’s most distinctive product and the one they’ve licensed into Australia and soon, they hope, the USA.

While the design is advanced (and appropriately awarded), manufacture is straightforward. Components are laser cut from sheet plywood (the company currently outsources this) then shipped to Henderson for finishing and assembly. Making the coffins in just one size (6’4.5” long, sorry basketballers) keeps things simple too, although if the US deal comes off they’ll need to rethink that.

Finishing options range from ‘sand it smooth’ to waxing to bring out the colour of the timber, having local artist Flox stencil something groovy on the lid or even printing the top and sides with a digital image that Greg sends to a printer in Albany via Dropbox. Greg says this option is a popular way for people to personalise coffins, with landscapes being a big seller. Less popular, at least for now, is the striking black and white female nude photo design he’s mocked up on his laptop. To be honest, it’s hard to know whether it’s meant to represent the occupant in better days (if it’s a she) or what the deceased was into (if he or she liked shes).

But the one thing it does show for sure is that this little West Auckland company, just around the back of the industrial units, two doors down from where the Mr Whippy truck is parked, is ready to try anything. And in an industry that seems largely to be stuck somewhere in the late 19th century, Return To Sender could be just the thing to inject a bit of life into the business of death.

After almost seven years in business and a current output of 350 coffins a year, no-one’s getting rich yet, and the couple have only recently moved out of the garage and taken on their first employee. Money might come one day, but in the meantime there’s the satisfaction, Leanne and Greg say, of knowing people are getting to leave the world in a way that fits with how they lived their lives.