Fifteen years ago, while writing his will, a New Zealand man named Ross Hall was struck with a profound realisation: he didn’t want to be laid to eternal rest in a plain brown mahogany box. He wanted to be buried in a bright red casket, with flames painted down the sides. And he wanted to give other people the option to choose their own custom-made sarcophaguses as well.
Customers of Hall’s Dying Art casket manufacturers can now be interred inside a miniature sailboat, a miniature fire truck or a giant cream doughnut. There are coffins decorated with leopard print and tiger stripes, coffins bedecked with images of motocross riders, dolphins and the picturesque landscapes of Middle Earth. The bespoke boxes retail at about $2,100 USD a pop—and following use they can either be cremated or else buried with their buyers for the rest of time.
“We’ve even started putting LEDS in the coffins that sit inside the lid, running off batteries, and those batteries last for 30 days,” Hall tells VICE World News over the phone. “So if you’re getting buried, the lights are on for 30 days.”
In the beginning, Hall says he was doing an average of one custom coffin every six months. Now he estimates that he and his small team of casket artists produce a couple of hundred a year.
“We’re definitely getting more demand for it,” he says. “And I just think the whole industry’s taking a turn. I mean take the latest coffin I did, which was the cream doughnut: who ever would have thought that something like that would get carried into a chapel with a body inside it?”
He isn’t the only one digging into the personalised casket market, either. VWN found at least half a dozen other retailers across Australia and New Zealand that are offering customers the chance to customise the boxes they’re buried in.
Corey Simpson, the founder of Australia-based company Lifestyle Coffins, estimates that personalised caskets now account for up to five percent of the country’s entire coffin market, and claims his own sales have grown by 20 percent in the last four years. Like Dying Art, Lifestyle offers a broad menu of casket options—from football team colours through to Doctor Who-themed designs, and one that’s made to resemble a glass case full of frothy beer.
“The strangest coffin I’ve ever been asked to design had a photo of a really ripped guy with muscles and abs laying sideways on one side,” Simpson told VWN via email. “I superimposed the face of the deceased man onto the ripped guy and they revealed it at the end of the service. It looked like the deceased was ripped and looking at the crowd laughing.”
It’s an irreverent approach to a famously solemn occasion—but it is this that Hall values most in his line of work: the opportunity to elicit laughter through the tears, and make some of the most difficult moments of people’s lives a little less devastating.
“It just takes the edge of that horrible thing of death,” he says. “We’re getting more and more customers as time goes on, and I think it’s because people are understanding that a funeral can be a celebration of life rather than the mourning of a death.”
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