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Swiss custom coffins to die for

Meritxell Mir · 6 Nov 2012, 18:40

Published: 06 Nov 2012 18:40 GMT+01:00

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But that’s how some Swiss want it to be and so they prepare their ‘last performance’ in advance, often with a dash of humour. Four years ago, Alice Hofer opened her business in Thun, a historic city at the foot of the Bernese Alps, to cater to the demand.

From the outside, her shop has the appearance of a Paris boutique. But customers here get dressed for death rather than for a fashionable turn along the High Street. Hofer sells customized coffins and urns at the request of the dead-to-be.

Aside from models with patriotic designs incorporating the Swiss flag, she offers a bewildering array of containers for the dearly departed. There’s a coffin decorated with black stars “because the universe will continue shining after death,” one covered with artificial grass “for golf lovers”, and another one painted with sunflowers “for those who enjoy the summer”, or wicker coffins “in British traditional style.”

One of the most striking ones is a blue coffin with glued mussel shells on it “for sea lovers.” But the coffin getting most of the attention lately is one inspired by Salvador Dalí’s melted clocks in ‘The persistence of Memory’, painted by a young local artist. Prices range between 1,000 and 3,000 francs (from $1,085 to $3,250), although they can get more expensive since there is no limit to customer demand.

But the most unusual coffins have yet to be made. One of her clients wants to be buried in a guitar-shaped box. Another one, in fact Hofer’s husband, Swiss rock star Polo Hofer, wants a coffin with two rear mirrors on the side “to be able to look back on his life.”

The coffin maker says she wants to offer the Swiss a different way to say goodbye to the earthly world. “In most cases, the death of a loved one is a tragedy, so why not give it a touch of humour?” she says. “Humour will rescue us from desperation.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Alice Hofer's custom urns and coffins

While novel in Switzerland, Hofer’s idea is not new. She learned about the unlikely origins of custom-made coffins after her shop was opened. It seems the tradition of getting buried in eccentric funerary boxes was born in Ghana more than 50 years ago when a carpenter created a sumptuous chair in the shape of a cocoa grain for a local leader. The man died before he could even sit on it for the first time, and the family decided to use it as his coffin.

Shortly after, another woman asked the carpenter to create a plane-like sarcophagus because she had never been able to fulfil her dream of flying. And that’s how eccentricity became a trend. Nowadays in Ghana it is common for people to get buried in a coffin that reflects their profession or favourite hobby. It’s not unusual to find coffins there looking like big hammers, mobile phones or pens.

Before Hofer, others in the Western world had been lured by the fun coffin tradition. British company Crazy Coffins, for example, has been manufacturing flamboyant coffins for over a decade. All of them are unique handmade pieces, carved in wood, such as a skateboard, a ballerina shoe, a yacht or a Viking boat. The favourite coffin company for football lovers is Natural Endings, which specializes in themes connected to the sport.

However, Hofer says that when she came up with the idea of setting up a coffin shop in Switzerland it was for “selfish reasons”. She needed comfort to overcome the “deep grief” she had for loved ones she had lost. “I wasn’t happy with the culture we have dealing with death because the dark side we always see is only one of the aspects of it,” she says.

But not everyone understands her approach to death. “Many people say that I am being fresh, or that I am making fun of death.” But she is convinced that her colourful coffins can “help people to overcome the loss more easily” because the last memory of the deceased person is not a dark, sad one.

“A lot of people show interest, but then only a few dare to be buried in a different coffin,” she explains, not wanting to reveal the number of eccentric models she has sold since she opened her business four years ago.

Story continues below…

Nowadays people tend to prefer being incinerated, so she caters to them with unique urns made of marble, ceramics (including one in the shape of a seashell), wood, and wicker. The latest trend is urns that vanish in water within two hours so that the remains can return to nature.  “You can put them on the shore of a lake or a river, hold a ceremony to bid farewell smoothly and watch the urn and the remains of the person as they fade away,” Hofer says.

With her business fully established, Hofer has decided to double the size of her shop and start offering other services, such as funeral consulting, workshops, meditation sessions and gathering of spiritual groups, all with the aim of overcoming the fear of death and learning to let go.

Ultimately, Hofer sees herself as a travel agent: “We all have our return flight booked from the moment we are born, so I make sure that the trip back is planned seriously, yet joyfully.”

More information: Alice Hofer's coffin studio (in German)

Meritxell Mir (news@thelocal.ch)

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