You might be trying to reduce your carbon footprint in everyday life, but what about in death? Alex Casey talks to Becs Bartells, founder of Outside the Box about creating the perfect cardboard casket.
Becs Bartells often forgets she has an empty coffin sitting in the back of her station wagon, which can make for a lot of petrified glances when she is loading up her groceries in the busy supermarket carpark. “People basically know me as ‘the coffin lady’ now, so that’s fun,” she laughs. If only those terrified onlookers knew that this coffin lady has tens, nay hundreds, more caskets waiting for them in her garage at home.
The creator and founder of Outside the Box Cardboard Caskets, Bartells is preparing to launch their 100% natural and sustainable coffin this month. Bartells first had the idea a decade ago while preparing for her Nana’s funeral after being struck by the limited range of coffins available. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how all the caskets always looked the same, they were all made of the same materials and they looked quite cold and harsh. That’s when cardboard first came to mind.”
Having studied industrial design at Massey University, Bartells had already created a sustainable cardboard furniture range for her final project and couldn’t shake the idea of using her skills to create a cheap, eco-friendly cardboard coffin. In 2018 she began testing the market by visiting funeral homes across Auckland. “I saw there was a niche there – they all looked the same, all made from MDF or solid wood and, for the most part, the eco thing didn’t come up.”
That “eco thing” is the carbon footprint left when you die, an issue being combatted by the growing green burial movement worldwide, now beginning to to blossom here in New Zealand. “People are becoming so much more aware of their impact they have on the world around them,” Bartells says, “I know that natural burials won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s about giving people those options.”
The next two years contained a lot of failures, collapses, and trying to convince people to test the prototypes. “That was really hard, nobody really wanted to come to my house and lie in a coffin,” says Bartells. Working with structural design experts and using a lot of water bottles to simulate various possible weights, she finally created a cardboard prototype that was easy to assemble, made out of 100% natural products and the first coffin in New Zealand to be certified by Natural Burials.
“It ticks a lot of boxes: they biodegrade a lot quicker than solid wood, they can be cremated about 10-15 minutes quicker, and they can be flat-packed so you can get more into a truck.” The weight limit has currently been tested to up to 320kg, and a handy instructional video shows how to put them together in less than two minutes. “We’ve used a few pine locking pins, but that’s better than other cardboard coffins that have metal screws and staples.”
Beyond the environmental benefits, the cardboard exterior also has the potential for friends and family to get creative. “The traditional caskets have that slick veneer on them, so the cool thing about these is that you can do a collage, write on them or paint them, it’s a lot more intimate and personal,” says Bartells. “I imagine it could be a very healing and cathartic experience for some people to get that close to their loved one and leave their mark like that.”
Bartells knows that the Outside the Box experience won’t be for everyone. “A lot of the old school funeral directors aren’t into cardboard and think it’s not as dignified, and that’s cool. Everyone’s got their own feelings and their own reasoning,” says Bartells. “I think it’s a positive thing, it’s just giving people an option in an industry where there aren’t that many and catering to those who want to leave a lower carbon footprint when they die.”
Attitudes are changing around death thanks to shows like The Casketeers and documentaries like The Coffin Club. Bartells herself has journeyed from being “pretty freaked out” about dying to launching a casket of her own. “I think it’s been a really good experience to embrace death. It’s going to happen to every one of us and we’re all going to need a coffin. After visiting so many funeral homes and seeing how the process works, I’m much more okay with it now.”
Still, what to do with the garage bursting full of unused coffin prototypes? “I have a very understanding flatmate so I don’t have to get rid of them all just yet – they’ve got so much history” she says.
“Maybe we’ll throw a really good Halloween party this year.”