Coffin painting - an inspiring story

Sophie writes: Charlotte and I arranged funerals for both our parents that reflected them both as amazing people, and also our feelings for them. Its not a hands on tips list, but may inspire others to confidence re painting or decorating a coffin for their loved one. I hope so! When our mother died, my sister and I found we were speaking in chorus about the way we wanted to arrange her funeral. “We’d like a plain white cardboard coffin, so we can paint it,” we said, when handed a catalogue of satin lined heavy wooden caskets at the undertakers. “We need a mix of poems, songs and stories, from every tradition, yes, the Kaddish, yes ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,’ yes to Elizabeth Bishop, Bob Dylan, Shakespeare. A big yes to flowers!” We were so close to our mother, Susan Collier, who brought us up. She was a fabulous person as well as a renowned textile designer, and we’d had time to get used to the awful truth of her dying as she went through the cumulative ordeals, insights and finality of cancer. That was five years ago. We painted her coffin on the desk at her old studio. The painting team comprised  her sister Sarah Campbell (who continues their previously shared textile work) my sister Charlotte Herxheimer, myself, and our daughters, Lola Milne and Rosa Herxheimer. We divided the box around the outside into panels, and painted a certain number of panels each, spread about, so that the styles would be intermingled and the whole would have integrity. Auntie Sarah painted an abundance of wisteria on the lid. We used designers gouache. (If you mix in a drop of washing up liquid this paint will stick even to a shiny surface, a trick mum taught me!) Sadly this year our Dad died. Typically of him, who was the opposite of mum in that he didn’t like a fuss (they were divorced many decades ago!) his death was quiet and had no real prelude. He was ninety and still working, full of ideas and plans. (His work was as a groundbreaking and innovative doctor in the field of pharmacology and entirely on the side of patients.) So, without going into the story, he died of a stroke: was fine, then some days later, was gone. We had only a short time to say our goodbyes, it still shocks me awfully that he’s not around. We planned the funeral with Christine, our stepmother, who had already found a plot at The Natural Burial Centre in Hampshire, where her own mother had been buried some years before. She was recommended Claire of OWL, by Josefine Speyer, a friend of hers and dad’s. Claire listened kindly to our wishes, and the whole service was very beautiful, moving and appropriate to the man himself, except that perhaps Charlotte and I have inherited the fuss making tendency! In what I’d like to think is a good way. So we hired a Klezmer band and of course, we painted his coffin. The granddaughters again joined in. This time we started from a dark green (very daddish) cardboard base, painting it on my kitchen table using acrylic paints. We based the design on a small German chest painted in a folk style, brought over by his mother/our grandmother Ilse when the family fled here in 1938, and now usually in Charlotte’s sitting room. A colleague came over to ask me about a commission. She’d never been to my house before, but to her credit was entirely unfazed by the decorated coffin on the table as I made her coffee.  “So are you all painters?” She asked. “Oh no,” I said, “but we can all paint alright, it’s what we were brought up doing. Surely anyone can paint a flower!” “Why not,” she said, “after all in some families everyone sings.” I still find that being an orphan (at the tender age of 53!) is a sad, sad state to find myself in, and not a day goes by without me thinking of my astonishing, vivid and wonderful parents. However, the collaborative and engaging act of painting those coffins, working quietly with my family on an offering to those we truly love and loved, was the most special and bonding thing to do. Like all creative processes, it was a place to channel feelings, and for this capacity and the freedom to know such things are possible, I am again grateful to mum and dad, who showed us all so much about how to contribute ones gifts meaningfully. Sophie Herxheimer, Brixton, October 2016 Funerals to Die For – That Won’t Cost the Earth - an all day event at the Festival on 4th November.