For the past two years, a Los Angeles company has been producing a range of sofas with buttoned cushions, studded arms and leather or vinyl coverings ranging from cowhide to “purple haze”. Airbrushed with paint designs, they combine traditional design features with a look that is more contemporary. However, these sofas are unlike most others: they are made from unused coffins.
Coffin Couches is the brainchild of Vidal Herrera, who runs an autopsy service. The company buys the coffins – they are either defective or unsold after families change selection – from local funeral homes. It removes the lids, adds legs and reinforces the undersides with steel plating.
Living with a cast-off coffin might seem eccentric but some customers are going a step further and living with one they intend to be their own.
As Coffin Couches has demonstrated, coffins are well suited to being used as furniture. Take Brooklyn-based artist Charles Constantine’s pine-built “Memento”, a coffee table and coffin combined. With an abstract, modern look, it neatly stores books and personal possessions until it is needed as a burial casket.
Another coffee table comes from Canadian company Casket Furniture (“Furniture for a Lifetime ... and Beyond” runs the slogan). Its Adam’s Coffin Coffee Table is a polished wood “toe pincher” coffin – the traditional elongated hexagonal shape – with six short legs. The company likes to blend the macabre with the playful, as shown in its “Manhattan” model, a casket pool table. While the toe pincher clearly looks like a coffin, simple rectangular models can be turned into furniture whose ultimate purpose is less obvious. “With any one of my pieces of furniture, you can’t tell it’s a coffin until it’s pointed out,” says Chuck Lakin, a woodworker based in Maine, New England, whose Bookcase Coffin consists of two seven-inch-deep boxes in pine hinged together and with adjustable shelves.
To transform it into a casket, the shelves are taken out and become the base. Handles are attached by bolts to a threaded insert that is embedded in the sides of the box. Lakin, whose coffins can also be used as coffee tables or entertainment centres, delivers the shelves with chest latches to keep the box closed once its owner is inside.
Meanwhile, Greenfield Creations, a British packaging maker that recently expanded its products to include cardboard coffins, will fit heavy-duty cardboard shelves into its coffins so customers can use them for storage before using them for the last time.
However, getting dual use out of furniture is often not the main reason for buying these pieces. Charles Cowling, author of The Good Funeral Guide, argues that people may also be trying to make a point. “It’s a public demonstration that you’re at ease with your mortality,” he says. Bonnie Lantz, a 62-year-old who works with hospices, agrees. “I chose to have a coffin because of my interest in the field of death and dying and my professional background,” she explains. “So I thought it would be interesting to have a coffin in my home.”
Lantz believes that living with your own coffin is a way of coming to terms with mortality.
At the same time, ordering your coffin ahead of time makes it more likely you will get the funeral you want. “I wanted to commission my coffin and have it in advance so that my children or whoever’s left won’t have any questions about how I want things to be,” says Gini Landry, an 80-year-old from Maine who uses the coffin Lakin made for her to display and store the quilts she makes.
Few pieces of furniture are more personal than something made to take you to your funeral. “You will own this object,” says William Warren, a London-based furniture designer whose Shelves for Life turn into a coffin. “It will store all your knowledge and prized possessions. It will be a visible part of your life and will get coffee stains and burns on it. So it will mean more when you use it as shelves and it will mean more when you are buried in it.”
Warren – who has his own set of Shelves for Life – has created further potential for personalisation: e-mail him your measurements and he will send you a design free of charge that you can use yourself or give to a carpenter.
Like many of those in the coffin-furniture business, Warren wants to provide caskets that are cheaper, better made and more meaningful than many traditional models. “The coffin is one of the most expensive pieces of furniture people will buy in their life and the one with the worst quality,” he says. “I’m happy for as many people to have mine as possible.”
Of course, in possessing a piece of furniture with decidedly morbid associations, owners have to take into account the reactions of friends and family.
After keeping her coffin chest in the bedroom, Gini Landry moved it to another room after her husband told her that whenever he looked at it he imagined her in it. However, Landry also takes mischievous pleasure from using her coffin chest to create a stir among visitors. “When I have guests and things get a little boring I say: ‘Would you like to see my coffin?’”
Sarah Murray is author of ‘Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre, How We Dignify the Dead’ (Coptic Publishing, UK; St Martin’s Press, US, 2011) www.makinganexit.net
● Coffin Couches: www.coffincouches.com
● Charles Constantine: www.charles-constantine.com
● Casket Furniture: www.casketfurniture.com
● Chuck Lakin: www.lastthings.net
● Greenfield Creations: www.greenfieldcreations.co.uk
● The Good Funeral Guide: www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk
● William Warren: www.williamwarren.co.uk