A DIY coffin workshop in Germany in 2019 (Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller)
A DIY coffin workshop in Germany in 2019 (Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller)

SocietyJuly 20, 2022

How to DIY a funeral

A DIY coffin workshop in Germany in 2019 (Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller)
A DIY coffin workshop in Germany in 2019 (Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller)

The rising cost of dying has been in the news lately, as more and more families struggle to afford funerals. There is another way to farewell loved ones, however – and, as two brothers write, it can be a deeply personal and fulfilling endeavour.

Some of our earliest memories are of a funeral. We were six and almost nine when our mother died at 28 years old, shortly after a cancer diagnosis. There have been relatively few deaths in the 40 years since. However, as we age, funerals become more common – hopefully after long and fulfilling lives, but not always.

Our childhood memories of our mum’s funeral, and sporadic visits to the cemetery in Māngere, South Auckland, where she is buried, are prickly, unsettled and heavy. This is unsurprising, given our age, but we have also found more recent funerals sometimes sit with the same weight. They have inevitably been formal events run by professionals who embrace their delicate trade with compassion. But they do them every day of the week and while sincere, they usually feel impersonal. 

We understand the myriad reasons for this. Losing a loved one is a time of intense grieving, so having professional help makes complete sense.

However, families have the option to make them so much more deeply personal and fulfilling by jointly taking on this task themselves. This, of course, is familiar to Māori, Pasifika and many other cultures within Aotearoa New Zealand.

But we are Pākehā New Zealanders, and the cultural norms we have partially inherited don’t typically include long and intense rituals. Indeed, for many of us the only time we visit a church is for weddings and funerals. However, as brothers we do things for ourselves in all aspects of our lives – from the business we run as ecologists, to making preserves, renovating our houses, fishing and hunting for the table, nurturing our gardens or crocks of kimchi, barrels of kombucha or home-brewed beer.

We take great pride in our sense of independence while being fiercely loyal to our family and friends. Taking responsibility for the funerals and wakes of our family is just a natural extension of the way we live. It is also tremendously cathartic and fulfilling, though we note that having a largish family helps, with tasks to suit all personality types – including simply grieving.

Our family weren’t really given a choice about how to farewell our mother’s parents when they passed. Our Irish Catholic grandmother and Yorkshire grandfather moved to New Zealand in the early 1960s with four young children. You can take the Irish Catholic matriarch out of Ireland, but you can’t take the Irish out of the Irish Catholic matriarch. And so, before our grandmother succumbed to dementia, she was adamant that she wanted a traditional Irish Catholic wake and funeral. For her this meant the family took responsibility, no strangers touching her body, no embalming, three days from death to burial, her body was never alone, the house was open to all to come and pay their respects, and she was to be buried beside our mother and her mother, with space for our grandfather when his time came.

Our grandfather, a thoroughly modern technologist with atheist leanings, willingly converted to Catholicism to wed his Irish gal, and he too wanted to follow Irish burial traditions. He was also a practical and creative man who did things for himself, who liked to save a penny, and was completely unsentimental about the afterlife. Indeed, his self-written eulogy included, among many other cracking good lines, “If you believe it [the funeral] was planned by a skinflint then the skinflint’s remains are in the box before you. I personally believe I am long gone to wherever I was scheduled to go.” He did the initial homework, determining that the family could legally conduct almost the entire burial process. However, it was with his characteristic and at times mischievous humour that he left the finer details for the family to work out.

Helen and Graham Kitchenman, the authors’ grandparents, in 1951 and 2019 (Photos: Supplied)

Thankfully, there are many skills, and more importantly a great willingness and sense of duty, within the family. As an example, one of their sons, our uncle, is a builder and was tasked with crafting the caskets. Our grandmother passed very suddenly at 93 so our uncle quickly built a casket for her, with an aunty working late into the night sewing a beautiful but simple cotton lining. For our grandfather, our uncle and aunty sorted the casket ahead of time. Our grandfather would proudly tell people about the flat-packed casket that lay waiting in his wardrobe for the day he passed. He was even more proud to share the positive result of his trials with the heat pump to keep the lounge cool during the wake, even in summer. These subjects could be conversation stoppers, but for him, and many of us, speaking about passing perhaps helps ease the mystery and, more importantly, the fear of what lies ahead.

We are animals, us humans, so once our bodies stop functioning, the bare-faced truth is that decomposition starts. We had to slow that process for the three-day wake.  So, in addition to the heat pump working away to keep the lounge cool, we placed the body on a plastic tarpaulin that would capture any fluids. We also bought bags of salt ice normally destined for a day’s fishing on the Hauraki Gulf. For our purposes we triple-bagged the salt ice in plastic rubbish bags and arranged these as icy sausage pillows to surround the body in the casket. To supplement the heat pump we also hired an air-conditioner, simply vented out a cracked window, to keep the room as cool as possible. Lastly, the windows were blacked out with tape and cardboard and all the curtains were shut in the lounge to keep out the warmth of the sun.

Family and friends visited during the three-day wake. During this time one of our grandparents’ granddaughters, our cousin, led the assembly of a funeral card that celebrated each of our grandparents in a few select photos, a little information, and gave the schedule of the funeral and burial. Searching for just the right photos and information to fill this farewell card was a lovely way to trigger stories and reminiscences by family and friends.

One of us led on ensuring the legal requirements were satisfied, and that all the necessary steps were in place for the required three-day timeline to be met. It goes without saying that thinking about all of this ahead of time is tremendously helpful. We both work in science, so for us a simple checklist was the easiest way to ensure that everything was covered. This is what our list contained:

  • Ideally, the deceased’s will, power of attorney, end-of-life care and wishes for their funeral are documented and distributed among the family well prior to death.
  • Following death, the police, ambulance staff and the deceased’s doctor must be notified. The doctor will issue a cause of death certificate. This needs to be sent to the Department of Internal Affairs with the notice of death form, which will generate the death certificate. The notice of death form can be obtained ahead of time from the Department of Internal Affairs website. The notice of death form needs to be submitted within three days of burial. 
  • A coffin must be prepared; we chose untreated ply. Plastic handles were purchased for the casket bearers to use, but these were removed immediately prior to the burial, and kept for future use (our grandfather was also opposed to being buried with plastic). If a loved one’s passing is somewhat expected, the coffin can be prepared ahead of time and stored for eventual use.
  • The family cleaned and prepared the body for burial. Embalming is not required and is far from environmentally friendly. The body should be washed with a light antiseptic solution. Prior to dressing the body, it is a good idea to put a couple of pairs of adult incontinent pants on the person to deal with any leakage that might happen post death.
  • The body will set reasonably quickly so it is important to close the eyes if needs be, pop something under the chin to keep the mouth shut and set the loved one in an appropriate position. Their arms might also need to be supported to keep them in place.
  • We used two poles and a tarpaulin to move the body. This needs to be done very carefully to make sure nobody hurts themselves because you are, after all, moving a dead weight. Just take your time and have a plan that everybody understands. 
  • For our grandparents’ wakes their bodies lay in state in their beloved family home (see above about keeping this space cool).
  • Elevate the head end of the casket about 20-30mm, ie the head should be a little bit higher than the rest of the body to deal with any fluid escape. 
  • The body will need to have salt ice packed around it. We triple-bagged it, taking care to make sure the bags were very securely tied. The ice will last really well if carefully insulated, and the room is cold, but it will start to melt over the course of three days (we felt terribly guilty packing ice around our grandmother, because she always felt the cold, but we hope she would have understood why we had to do so).
  • Cover the body with duvets and heavy covers to provide extra insulation.
  • Place a net over the face and head. 
  • Contact the cemetery. It was vital for us to have pre-purchased burial plots ready, so we could keep with the Irish tradition of a three-day wake. If you choose to cremate, liaise with the crematorium ahead of time so you know what you will have to do.
  • Our cemetery required us to have a funeral director onsite for the actual burial. This was all they did, they were just there, and we appreciated that they just let us get on with farewelling and burying our grandparents.
  • Arrange a location for the funeral service. We used our grandparents’ Catholic church, but the venue need not be a religious site.
  • Arrange morning tea for after the funeral service. In our case the church could arrange this. Simply paying them to do so gave us one less job to think about.
  • Place a death notice in the newspaper.
  • Arrange a vehicle that can safely and securely transport the casket. We frequently joked with our grandfather that we would pop him on the roof racks for the trip from his home to the cemetery, which he thought was funny, but not really appropriate. We used a van, and suggest you do too.
  • Choose the pall bearers. This is an opportunity for many people to be involved if they want to. We required four “moves” of the casket with four to six pall bearers per move: (1) the house to the vehicle, (2) the vehicle to the church, (3) the church back to the vehicle, (4) the vehicle to the burial plot. By placing more capable people on the coffin corners we could have others in the middle slots, especially grandchildren and great grandchildren.
  • As a final farewell, we filled the burial site ourselves. Tears flowed as shovels were passed from person to person and the casket covered. Have a good number of shovels on hand, and perhaps some gumboots. 

There are many resources available for DIY funerals, and we recommend having them on hand, especially for the first time, if this is something that interests you. It is not for everyone – we understand that. But for us the process was so cathartic, and created so much bonding between family and friends, that we wanted to share our experiences here. Unlike many funerals we have attended, our grandparents’ funerals were deeply personal, filled with a loving sadness in conducting the final job they tasked us with, a great gift, and a celebration of lives well lived.  

Keep going!