It’s a relatively safe wager that, unless you are lost at sea, vaporized in a terrible explosion, abducted by malevolent aliens, assumed bodily into the sky in some kind of heavenly rapture or are indeed simply immortal, you are going to end up in a coffin.
Once the job of the local carpenter, who in all likelihood also acted as embalmer and undertaker, the big business of making these receptacles for the dead developed during the carnage of the American Civil War.
It’s a precise business. There are strict regulations governing how a coffin or casket is manufactured, as well as specified sizes and designs.
Increasingly however, what you see on the outside of your final resting space is a matter for you.
Bayden Roberts is a man with an eye for detail. Which makes sense, as a former automotive detailer and spraypainter. He’s matter-of-fact, straight to the point and not in the least bit cheerless.
And he makes coffins and caskets for H.H. Webb & Co., largely by hand. Their factory in Delacombe has hundreds, perhaps over a thousand wooden boxes awaiting new, permanent, owners. It’s confronting to walk into a space stacked high towards the rafters with gleaming boxes. The crisp smell of freshly-cut timber hangs like incense. I’ve arrived after the close of manufacture. It’s quiet, but not eerie. Not too eerie. Bayden and his offsider Cory Joynson are finishing a couple of orders, and the silence is punctuated intermittently by the sharp report of a nail gun.
Bayden has a shock of straight-up hair and a ready grin. He’s not someone who’s shy of a tattoo parlour. For him, this is simply a business of making a very good end product. Literally.
Let’s get one thing sorted early. When is a coffin a coffin, and when is it a casket? Is there a real difference?
“There’s a big difference,” says Bayden. “A coffin is your classic ‘coffin’ shape - six sides, that ‘body’ shape. A casket is four sides, or straight; they’re more ornate, they have more ‘furniture’.”
“We do fancier work – more moulds, more beads, little notches and chamfers in the corners of the box.”
I ask the first of what seems like a dozen silly questions. How many coffins do you make a week, and how do you cater for… special requests?
“On average? Wow. It can vary on demand. We can ship out anywhere from 50 coffins to 300 or 400. It depends of course on how many passings there are, how busy the funeral directors are.
“As for custom stuff, we’ll pretty much make what you want. We’re slowly getting pushed a little bit by imports, they’re importing them from China… but we do all of regional Victoria.
If I get a call tonight that says ‘We’ve got a guy who’s 6’6’’, or 3’3”; 250kg, four-foot wide’ – with the imports you only get what you’re given. If they ring me, I can get it made in a day and shipped out.”
Touring the factory – three vast sheds constructed in the 1980s – there are huge piles of medium density fibreboard, hereafter MDF; particle board and solid pine.
“That’s what we start with, flat MDF, our solid stuff is along the same lines,” says Bayden.
“The paper’s already pressed on it in Queensland. Many moons ago they used to press it themselves here. The costs just got too involved. Same with cutting mouldings. So we get it in from Queensland now. There’s some machinery here that’s obsolete.
“The manufacturers in Melbourne – everything is run by machine. We’re just moving into that. All our solid boxes were sanded by hand, now they’re done by machine. They're still assembled by hand, this factory is not big enough to run those machines. I’d like to go down and have a look, but being competition I don’t think they're too keen on me venturing in…”
Bayden gestures towards a large metal bench, like a tablesaw but with shaped, fluted spindles instead of blades.
“Down onto the router, we have all our lids cut out - a multitude of different lids, just lots. Single raised lids, twin raised lids, flat lids and your basic cheaper version. It’s pretty straightforward – they’re cut to shape, cut to size.
“Our standard coffin is 12 ½ inches high, so these machines are set up, they cut all the sides to size, standard or oversize – they can go to 18 inches high.”
The process of curving the timber in a coffin side is called kerfing. It’s an ancient, unchanged practise in carpentry, making a series of cuts across the grain of a piece of wood, or through the MDF, to enable it to be bent without splintering or snapping.
“They go through and have the kerfs done, so we can fold them around and get that coffin shape,” says Bayden. “They get rebated and moulded and moved onto the dovetailer, it does all the angle cuts. We’re the only manufacturers in Australia that still dovetail-pin. I feel it’s better.
“Once they’re assembled they are stacked here until the painters are given a list of what they need to do.”
To the more visceral details then. I’ve been to a couple of exhumations in my time; it’s not something most people contemplate and certainly not for the queasy. How do the manufacturers prepare a coffin for burial and the possible need to reopen it at a later date?
“They did tests years ago, out at the uni, they did weight tests and stress tests on handles and that sort of stuff,” says Bayden.
“As to life in the dirt, I can only assume that solid timber is going to last better than MDF. They’ve pulled up a couple of our blackwood caskets that have been in the ground for 12 years, they’ve pulled them up and they’re fine. They had to obviously punch a hole in the bottom to let water inundation release.
“Coffins are fairly well-sealed, they’re plastic-lined and trimmed and when they’re screwed down they seal up.
“People don’t want to know after that. They’d like to assume the box is going to disintegrate and turn to nothing.”
Everyone knows that the funeral business is an expensive one. But for Bayden, it’s simply about making coffins. He has no interest beyond the sale of what he makes to the directors. Nevertheless, he can track cultural and customary changes simply through what he sells and what is ordered.
“What we sell these for and what the funeral directors sell them for are entirely separate. Solid timber boxes aren’t the biggest seller because they’re more expensive, but you do get people that HAVE to have solid timber.
“There’s no cultural connection so much any more. Once Italian families would always have the big caskets, that sort of stuff; but nowadays if you want a big casket you just order it. We have many more basic coffins ordered than big caskets. It just depends on how much you want to spend I suppose, at the end of it.”
For the funerals of the poor or homeless conducted by the state, there’s no such flourish.
“Certain funeral directors will have a base model coffin or casket that they use and will ring and say “it’s a cheaper one,” and that’s what they use, says Bayden. “It‘s called a ‘Jewish’, because it originates in the religious tradition of Jewish funerals demanding a simple wooden box with no ostentation.
“The name has always stuck with them, as it has with almost every casket and box in the place – the name’s been stuck with the design. The manager that was here long ago designed a box, and he called it ‘The Creswick’, because he was from Creswick. It’s stuck and hasn’t moved.”
Even the most necessary and permanent of trades must adapt. While we’re not at the point where the shapes have changed wildly as you might see in Ghana, you can have your coffin customised, colour-wise. Bayden has done football club colours and any number of personalised designs.
“I did one in Kermit green a while ago; and a beautiful job for an Aboriginal man. One half of the coffin was red, down the middle, the other half was black; there was a big yellow circle in the middle here. It looked pretty good.”
“These old (veneer) paper designs, they’ll change one day. Vinyl wrapping is becoming big – you can print what ever you want on a coffin.”
Which makes the mind race. Imagine printing exactly what you thought of everyone onto a vinyl wraparound for your coffin. THAT’S called having the final say.
And the trend towards eco-funerals – cardboard coffins and such? Bayden is prosaic about the growth.
“At the moment they’re dearer than an MDF box. But it’s more and more popular, and things have to change.”
By the way – if you’re thinking of bypassing the funeral director and going straight to the manufacturer, you’ll have to think again.
“I get about half a dozen calls a month wanting to buy from us directly,” says Bayden. “We deal only with the funeral directors. We don’t sell to the public. We don’t want someone trying a backyard burial.”