Departure by design

Departure by design
Andy Mitchell used to create containers to send products around the world; now, he's designing personalised, transport-friendly, nail-free coffins.

The way we send off our loved ones is changing. There are more cremations, a greater focus on eco-friendly funerals, and more people planning their ceremony before they die. Personalisation is a part of these changes – and this is where Andy Mitchell and Departure Lounge Caskets come in.

Andy is a carpenter by training, who works in the packaging business. From hospital scanners, to live sheep holders for the middle-of-nowhere in the Middle East, his company MCL Packaging has been shipping difficult and fragile things across the world for years.

But it wasn’t until his dad became ill that he became interested in caskets.

His father, a traditional boat builder who worked with kauri, was diagnosed early with an illness that gave the family plenty of time to plan last wishes. Andy took it upon himself to build his father a coffin out of the kauri his father worked with, and had lying about in abundance.

His father wasn’t having a bar of it. 

“[He said], ‘I’ll be very happy for you to build my casket, but there’s no way you’re building it out of my good kauri.’”

His father was quite adamant about wanting his coffin built out of plywood, and not having anything valuable “wasted” on him. So pine it was, though beautifully decorated by family and friends, with ropes on the side as handles.

These days Andy says the personal touch – and giving families options – is the key to his caskets. Customers can choose their own pictures to be printed on the side, or can take images from Andy’s existing selection. Or they can take parts of the coffin home and write personal messages or paint pictures on the wood.

 “Write your stories, write your goodbyes, little messages, something special,” says Andy.

Andy Mitchell of Departure Lounge Caskets 

Such customization would not have been possible if not for the ground-breaking way he's designed the caskets. Like those DIY airplanes you slotted together as a child, Andy’s caskets can be built in entirely the same way.

Held together by tension and wooden pegs, the lightweight components can be set up or dismantled in under two minutes. It’s almost like the Ikea version of a casket – Andy laughs and wonders if the Swedish furniture maker would take up the challenge and start stocking his caskets in their international stores. 

People in the funeral business he has shown his product to have been amazed at what he’s doing, Andy says. Mortech Industries, a key player in New Zealand’s embalming and mortuary sector, has signed a deal with Departure Lounge Caskets to become its national distributor. 

Potentially priced at under $2,000 each, depending on delivery requirements, Andy’s caskets are anywhere from half-price to a third cheaper than traditional coffins. 

And the fact a relatively strong person can pick up the entire package, albeit not easily, shows the coffins are far lighter than anything else on the market. 

The ability to personalise his caskets also helps solve one of  the problems faced by funeral directors – people who want to bring or make their own coffin.

“Is it going to go through the door? Is the bottom going to fall out? Will it go on the rollers on the hearse? Every time someone says they are going to supply a casket that they've made themselves, or their brother’s made, or someone else has made, there’s going to be concerns,” says Andy.

He says his coffins make it easier for funeral directors, who can allow individual components to be taken home for friends and families to personalise, knowing that there won’t be any problems later on.

Just finishing the prototype stage, with the first 28 units only delivered last month, Andy is hesitant to talk numbers. Even working with Hamilton’s Soda incubator to develop the product has been a big investment for him – more than six figures. He admits one of the biggest struggles has been raising the development capital himself, without selling assets.

Ultimately, Departure Lounge Caskets has been built up entirely on the side of his existing business, MCL Packaging, he says. It’s a good thing then that the packaging business basically runs itself at this stage, or at least 95% of the time. With only three full-time staff, including his wife and himself, it’s been busy. 

“It’s got to be something you’re passionate about, and timber is something I’m very passionate about. Always have been. It doesn’t matter what field you’re working in, you’ve got to put everything in to it. You’ve got to live and breathe it.”