Aretha Franklin’s coffin. Photograph by Paul Sancya for AFP via Getty Images.

Inside the World of Designer Coffins

Specialized coffin designers reflect a desire for more personal touches in the afterlife.

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Oct 24 2018, 12:35pm

Aretha Franklin’s coffin. Photograph by Paul Sancya for AFP via Getty Images.

Death is the end we all face, but how we want to be remembered is taking a twist. Aretha Franklin’s gold coffin at her funeral this past August is just the latest example: From coffins with a classic Dracula-inspired goth look to coffins adorned with sports logos to coffins designed like a Doctor Who TARDIS or an airplane, several companies have emerged over the past several years to cater to individuals who want their personalities and the interests that defined their lives to be reflected in their final resting place.

After attending the funeral of a friend, coffin designer Trey Ganem thought, “Why is he in this granny box?” The event just didn’t define who his friend was in life. Six years ago, Ganem began building custom caskets as the owner of Texas-based Trey Ganem Designs.

Ganem was the first in the US to offer coffins with custom graphic artwork. For a client who was a passionate hunter, he designed and created a casket covered in camouflage print, with a deer head painted on the top and affixed with a set of real antlers. Another casket had a fishing motif adorned with a real marlin spear. For a musician, he mounted a drum set on a coffin. He often creates caskets for families who have lost a child, which have bright colors with superhero or Disney princess themes. He’s also produced Star Wars caskets and coffins in the colors of clients’ favorite sports teams.

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A coffin for a passionate hunter, complete with real antlers. Photograph courtesy of Trey Ganem Designs.
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A Star Wars coffin is a popular theme for Ganem. Photograph courtesy of Trey Ganem Designs.

Personalized caskets, Ganem said, get people excited about talking about their loved one, focusing their energy on the passions and hobbies of the person who is now gone. “It will start the healing process,” he said.

Ganem has a background in automotive fabrication, which translated almost seamlessly to the production of coffins. He does everything in-house with a staff of fabricators and graphic designers, and it takes his team only four to six hours to complete a coffin. Prices start at about $3,500, depending on the intricacy of the design and details.

“People want to say, ‘My life was unique, I mattered.’ Why not carry this through to their funeral?”

Examples of his work are on display at both the Hollywood and New Orleans locations of the Museum of Death. Various celebrities and sports stars have been buried in his coffins, including Tray Walker from the Baltimore Ravens, who was buried in a bronze coffin with a Louis Vuitton logo print. “We actually cut Louis Vuitton luggage,” Ganem said. “He wanted a Louis Vuitton interior.” The soul singer Percy Sledge was buried in a Ganem coffin painted a striking black and white with musical notes; the underside of the lid featured a custom portrait of Sledge. Singer Christina Grimmie, a former contestant on The Voice who was shot in 2016 while signing autographs, was also buried in one of Ganem’s creations: an elegant white with green highlights and a few photos of her inside the lid.

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Percy Sledge’s music-themed coffin. Photograph courtesy of Trey Ganem Designs.

The custom casket isn’t always a consideration after death, however: UK-based Crazy Coffins builds coffins to order, often for the living who are planning ahead. Clients have commissioned a coffin that looks like old-style wooden luggage, complete with leather straps, as well as an English-style police call box, à la Doctor Who’s time-traveling TARDIS, with a personal message painted onto the surface: “Police telephone for use of public. Philip, still bringing us sunshine.” It often takes two or more weeks to build such sculpted coffins, and prices hover around £5,000 (about $6,400).

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A coffin designed to look like a travel trunk. Photograph courtesy of Crazy Coffins.
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A coffin designed to look like a bottle of Jack Daniels. Photograph courtesy of Crazy Coffins.

One client (who is still living) commissioned a giant ballet slipper; she loves ballet and plans to have the ballet La Fille Malgardée performed at her funeral service. Another piece de resistance is a vintage Rolls Royce. The space for the body extends from the under the front hood to under the back seat, just above the rear wheels.

Still more custom coffin companies are cater to clients’ personal concerns and values, such as New Mexico’s Passages, which offers eco-friendly basket-style caskets made of seagrass or willow.

Why the interest in personalized coffins? Ashley Cozine, former president of the US-based National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and owner of Cozine Memorial in Wichita, Kansas, explains that people—both grieving friends and families as well as the dead themselves—seek personalization in funerals and memorials. That might include anything from a memory table in a funeral home setting to staging a thematic event in other venues.

“People want to say, ‘My life was unique, I mattered.’ Why not carry this through to their funeral?” he said.

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A coffin shaped like a ballet slipper, for a ballet fanatic client. Photograph courtesy of Crazy Coffins.
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A skateboard coffin. Photograph courtesy of Crazy Coffins.

Within the past 10 years, Cozine said, so-called celebrations of life, rather than the more standard North American ceremonies in funeral homes or places of worship, have become increasingly common. NFDA statistics show an increase over the past year for funerals in non-traditional locations, such as bars, golf courses, parks, and private homes, from 48.3% in 2017 to 54.1% in 2018. The same survey showed that 48% of Americans report that they are interested in green funeral and burial options.

As a reflection of these changes, some funeral homes are rebranding and dropping the word “funeral” from their names while others are creating “life event centers,” which can be used for other activities—not just ones related to death. These spaces generally have simple, modern architecture with lots of natural light.

But to make sure your send-off really speaks to you, Cozine said, planning early is key. He points out that people take a year to plan a wedding, but funerals often have just as many details: location, food, notices and invitations, music choices, a theme, the building and design of a custom casket, and more. But because death is often sudden, the industry pulls things together within days. Choices are often made by family members or friends because many don’t plan ahead.

As the people at Crazy Coffins say, “A better idea is to buy now and die later.”

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly named the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).