'The Coffin Club' Faces Death With a Song

A New Zealand filmmaker put the story of a unique group of seniors to song and dance. Snapshot from video, The Coffin Club/YouTube

In New Zealand, seniors are taking death into their own hands, meeting once a week to build and decorate their own coffins. It may sound macabre. It certainly doesn't seem like fodder for a film, and it definitely can't be the makings of a charming song-and-dance musical.

But for Kiwi film director Briar March that’s exactly what came to mind when she first learned about a growing number of aging New Zealanders who are joining coffin clubs in an effort to stare down death while having fun. Her new docu-musical, "The Coffin Club" (watch it below), puts a "celebratory spin" on this oddly heartening hobby sweeping her country.

"I think that’s what The Coffin Club members are doing too," says March in this Stuff article. "They are having fun and creating a joyous celebration out of something that could otherwise be a scary and not so open subject that people want to talk about."


A mature way to move on

Katie Williams, a former palliative care nurse from the town of Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island, was the first to convince fellow retirees to lay down their bingo cards and knitting needles for the creative joys of coffin-making.

The Kiwi Coffin Club started in her garage in 2010 and quickly grew as word spread among local seniors about this odd but intriguing new way to connect with others. It now boasts 60-plus members. As Williams recently told The Guardian: "There is a lot of loneliness among the elderly, but at the coffin club people feel useful, and it is very social. We have morning tea and lunch, and music blaring, and cuddles."

coffin club members meet weekly
Members of the Kiwi Coffin Club meet weekly to build their own coffins and have some fun. Snapshot from video, The Coffin Club/YouTube

By building and decorating their own "underground furniture," club members not only begin to cope collectively with the realities of death, but have a chance to imbue their final journey with some personality, whimsy and creative pizzazz, too. Best of all, their DIY coffins cost a fraction of what standard models do, allowing older people and their families to drastically cut funeral expenses.

Since Williams launched her group, several more coffin clubs have sprung up around New Zealand. A few have even expanded beyond making their own coffins to creating baby models that are donated to hospitals for free.

Finding levity in loss

When director March first got wind of these free-spirited seniors, she immediately sought a way to bring their lively gallows humor and engaging creativity to the screen. The obvious choice? Film it as a campy musical cast entirely with members of the Rotorua Kiwi Coffin Club.

coffin club stars sing and dance
Senior stars of "The Coffin Club" poke fun at death in this song-and-dance number. Snapshot from video, The Coffin Club/YouTube

She sent a proposal to Loading Docs, a web platform that selects 10 short New Zealand documentaries annually to help develop and distribute. After launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise money, she put her senior stars to work.

The 3-minute docu-musical is funny and fun, paying homage to the excitement and spectacle of old Hollywood musicals. The seniors are naturals, thumbing their noses at death with aplomb and rejoicing in life through witty lyrics about death, fancy footwork and razzle-dazzle costumes.

Perhaps the real stars are the coffins themselves, which many club members apparently use as decorative furniture until it’s time for their intended purpose. There’s an Elvis-inspired casket adorning one woman’s Elvis-inspired room, a cushion-topped blue model currently used as a sofa bed, and a whimsical chicken-themed coffin serving as a living room display table.

Elvis-themed casket
A Kiwi Coffin Club member shows off her Elvis-themed casket. Snapshot from video, The Coffin Club/YouTube

For March, the idea isn’t just to highlight the warmth and camaraderie that coffin clubs provide, but also to spark a healthy conversation about life and death. As she notes in her crowdfunding video: "I hope that this unique story will allow all generations to have a fresh perspective on aging. How do we overcome the fear of death and what does it mean to take control of it?"