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Page last updated at 09:27 GMT, Thursday, 24 April 2008 10:27 UK

Stickers on coffins

Hamish Broadhurst's coffin

By Jackie Storer
BBC News

There's nothing cheerful about a coffin - until you cover it with colourful pictures. The idea of decorating caskets is helping some people come to terms with that only sombre certainty we all have in life.

When Mary Tomes dies, she doesn't want a plain wooden box.

"I want a bright yellow coffin, one that says something about me. One brown box doesn't fit all. It doesn't show your personality or your sense of humour. My husband told me not to be so daft."

Mary Tomes
You can't take away the pain, but what you can do is lift the day
Mary Tomes

That was four years ago. Now Mary, a 62-year-old grandmother, not only has a sunshine-yellow coffin for when she meets her maker, but runs Colourful Coffins in Oxford, which prints customised paper wraps to stick onto caskets.

Her initially reluctant husband Kevin, 58, is chief designer, and the pair use their skills as printers to turn 3,000 caskets into visual representations of those inside.

Eric Thornton's tram-themed creation

"We've had the last of the Dambusters, who had a plaque on the top with bouncing bombs, the white cliffs of Dover and Lancaster bombers. And we had an ice cream van man, who had ice cream cones on his. He had the van leading the parade and they all stood round the grave eating Magnums," says Mrs Tomes.

Dr Bill Webster, a grief counsellor and author, says choosing a bespoke coffin is part of a move towards more individualistic funerals.

"It's a symbolic act to have this personalised colourful coffin. They are saying their loved one was special, that they were an RAF pilot, that these are his football colours. I have even seen one that was like a Kit Kat bar."

Dr Webster - who lost his wife in 1983, leaving him to bring up their two sons alone - says people do not talk about death enough or their plans for when it happens.

"Death is always an unwelcome experience. We avoid it as much as we can. When death happens, we wonder 'what would they want? What should we do? What's appropriate at the time?' I believe that a good funeral is the beginning of a healthy grief process."

Coffin maker in Ghana
Making a whale-shaped coffin in Ghana

While Colourful Coffins - and another UK company, JC Atkinson - print what are effectively colour transfers for standard coffins, Nottinghamshire's Crazy Coffins makes caskets shaped like cars, cricket bags and ballet shoes.

The tradition of adding designs or sculpturing coffins dates back to Egyptian times. In Ghana, for instance, hand-carved coffins are popular and can reflect the status of the deceased.

"It's a good idea for those who are bereaved to contribute to the funeral service in some way," says Father Nicholas Cheeseman, of All Saints Church in Reading. "Sometimes this might just mean joining in a hymn, but it might also mean choosing a coffin."

Lost child

Once the concept occurred to her, Mrs Tomes set about researching demand. "One clergyman said: 'My dear, I can't see myself in one, but I think it would help many parents'."

The family album, on a coffin

A bespoke coffin costs about 800 - the same price as a pine version - and for each one that is cremated, a donation is made to Climate Care, which invests that money into emission reduction projects.

While the Tomes appreciate making something unique for what is always a distressing day, they do find it difficult when the coffin is for a baby or child.

"The first time we did one, we all cried," says Mr Tomes. "No one ever wants to lose a child. Children's charities tell us that a colourful coffin is so much nicer if a child has siblings. Instead of a white box, they remember flowers or fairies."

Mrs Tomes adds: "You can't take away the pain but you can lift the day."

After their 15-year-old son Hamish died of pneumonia in October 2006, Katharine and Stuart Broadhurst chose a rainbow coffin to symbolise the colour the severely disabled boy had brought into their lives.

"We wanted something incredibly bright because his eyesight wasn't 100%," says Ms Broadhurst. "He wore colourful clothes, he was the colour in our family."

'He was the colour in our family'

The casket had his photo at the end facing the congregation, and a copy of a plaque from his door reading: "Brave knight sleeping, wake with extreme caution". Those at the funeral were "wowed" that it fitted Hamish's personality so neatly, she says.

When Jill Byrne's 89-year-old father Eric Thornton died, she chose a coffin decorated to look like a Halifax tram with the destination "Terminus".

"Trams were so much a part of Dad's life," she says. "He had always wanted to be a tram driver and was a director for Seaton Tramway on the south Devon coast.

"It was a real talking point and it just made such a difference to our family. It was exactly right and a fitting celebration of everything that was him."

Here is a selection of your comments.

I lost my mother and sister a couple of years ago, both funerals very upsetting. If I had know about this it would have been nice to lift the day by covering my Mum's coffin in the green pastures of the Yorkshire moors (her beloved birthplace) and my sister's in dolphins (her favourite animal).
Caron White, Southampton

I'm a funeral director and I know from experience that while many people want something different, many still want something traditional. Evolution takes time but a good funeral professional will help the family choose whatever is best for them. The more information there is about death, the less taboo the subject will be and more people will be able to ask open questions about their wishes and needs.
Abi, West Sussex

What a moving way to mark someone's passing. I can honestly say that the worst funerals I have been to were generic ones that didn't reflect the person we were all there to mourn. A funeral is an occasion to celebrate the life of the person we have lost & this is a lovely idea.
Kirsty, Motherwell

Funerals are about remembering someone's life and saying goodbye to them. I would like to have a coffin which reflects my personality. But there's something to be said about traditional - that in itself suits many people's personalities. I can't imagine having buried my dad in anything than a traditional wood coffin, he would have thought it was disrespectful.
Abi, Devon

It is one of those changes which makes one think, retrospectively, why did we all do the same thing for so long? As society gradually frees itself from the intellectual shackles of organised religion such expressions of individuality, in death as in life, should become more common. Once they don't become increasingly gargantuan and tacky, as has happened with "floral tributes", then such statements of personal freedom, the final "Ecce Homo", are to applauded.
Des Hickey, London

My wife and I left our bodies to medical science, so when my wife died I had no body to dispose of. I arranged a party on the local common where she frequently walked her dogs. There was a marquee, a couple of musicians, a pin board for photos and memorabilia, and people brought refreshments to share. It was a beautiful day and a lovely way to commemorate her.
Norman, Anstruther

Bespoke coffins that portray the deceased's character and personality make the day easier to deal with. I have told my husband what I want when I die and he'd better do it or I'll be back to haunt him. I want a bright happy box, bright happy flowers and bright happy music.
Kiltie Jackson, Staffs, UK

I'm 20 and I've already stated what I want when I die. I'm going to be buried into the ground wrapped in cloth. So I can go "back" into the earth. I think this is such a brilliant idea. Anything to make the day go better. And what a way to be remembered.

Last year I attended the funeral of a friend who was killed in a skydiving accident. The coffin was painted sky blue with clouds, reflecting his passion for skydiving and free spirit. We all thought it was lovely idea and helped to make the funeral a celebration of his life as well as an occasion of sadness at losing him.
Helen, Bristol, UK

As one of the few certainties of life (the other being taxes), anyone who has reached an age at which they understand that they will one day die should plan their funeral in advance. Not only will it help their grieving loved ones carrying out the organisation of their funeral, it also removes any doubt of whether the deceased would actually like their own funeral. I think the idea of a personalised coffin is a great idea and will be adding it to the plans I already have for own funeral.
DS, Croydon, England

I have been looking into eco-coffins and ways of disposing of myself. I used to say just stick me in a wheelie bin and set fire to it, but having to rethink that idea with all the toxic fumes you get from plastics. The Himalayan idea of just being left for the birds/animals to eat my remains sounds a great way to give something back. I'm totally unsquemish about death.
Andrew Lang, Glasgow

I think this is a great idea and wish I had thought of this for my brother's coffin. We had all his mates dressed in farm boots which made a talking point and helped lighten the mood of the day.
Tim Parrott, Lincoln

At my funeral I'd like people to focus on remembering how I lived, rather than the fact that I'm dead. As someone who loves doing fancy dress (costumes not smart clothes), I would love my mourners to come in fancy dress and have my coffin covered in photos of me in my various costumes. I enjoy entertaining people with my costumes ideas and would much rather those I left behind remembered me in a silly costume than a plain pine box.
TS, Bromley, England

The coffin matters far less than the faith of those who mourn. Those who have faith in Jesus know that he is the Resurrection and the Life, which he invites us all to share.
Rev John, Guildford

Whilst faith is important, we should remember that not all funerals are religious, and even for those that are the celebration of the departed's life is important for the family and friends. That said, I think the images should still be appropriate to the occasion. I won't be conducting funerals for coffins covered in images from horror films or "soft porn", even if it does sum up the person's life.
Rev Steve Walters, Tipton

You're dead. Get over it.
Bob, London

At my special needs son's funeral, anyone wearing black was turned away at the gate and helium balloons were released. Everyone was in bright colours. Was a sad but happy occasion. Bob, thanks for those kind words.
DP, Gosport

Funerals are for the survivors, not the deceased, Bob.
Mary, Bristol

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