Tucked into a gorgeous bit of Sussex Downs countryside near Clayton, sits the workshop of Jake Whitcroft, owner of Sussex Willow Coffins.
I’d first met Jake briefly at the Bentley Museum Wood Fair, where his stall was getting a lot of interest. In the few minutes that I was standing there, I heard at least three conversations that started with ‘when I die, I want…’ It’s great to see what taboos can be broken through just by bringing death into the everyday.
But there’s nothing everyday about Jake’s coffins. These are artisanal works of beauty! Willow coffins are starting to become more popular these days, but most Funeral Directors source them from China or Poland or – if they get them from the UK – Somerset. The supposed ‘green’ option isn’t quite so green when you add all those transport miles!
Sussex Willow Coffins are made from, well, Sussex willow. Jake grows and coppices much of the willow himself on local land before weaving it into coffins.
Most willow coffins are made from ‘buff willow’, which has been boiled for hours to strip it of its bark. Jake does make these too, but he also offers ‘green willow’ coffins, where the bark has been left on, giving a really lovely, more rustic look. Green willow coffins also creak less, I’m told!
So what made Jake pursue a career in coffin making?
After a 2.5 year apprenticeship in coppice crafts and woodland management with the Small Woods Association, Jake mostly made woven fences and baskets with the wood he produced. However, he likes making big things (when I visited the workshop, there was a huge hot air balloon basket he’d just finished) and, after a course in Dorset with a coffin maker, he found his ‘thing’. Not only was this making big things, but he loved that people were involved and his products served a real purpose.
Jake redesigned the coffin he’d learned to make – originally from imported rattan – to make it out of locally grown willow. Now his coffin making supports his planting and cultivating projects and vice versa – perfect business synergy! There’s also a fitting symbology in the willow and its use – willow grows fast and has to be cut down every year in a constant cycle of living and dying.
Each coffin takes 2.5-3 days to make and line, and it takes a bolt and a half of willow (around 1500 sticks) to make each one. Willow coffins are suitable for both cremation and burial, and Jake estimates that his have been used about 50/50 for these purposes.
So why would you spend around £700 buying a Sussex Willow Coffin when you could save money and buy an imported one from Poland instead? Well, because you really would be buying local – both in supporting an experienced Sussex craftsman and the resources he uses. These coffins really are a work of art, not from a production line. Plus, if you would like to come to the workshop for an hour or so (by arrangement), you can also get involved with weaving your loved one’s coffin.
Local coffins with soul made by a really lovely guy and a chance for some creative grieving – I know what I’d like when I die…
You can find out more about Sussex Willow Coffins on their website, www.sussexwillowcoffins.co.uk, or give Jake a call on 01273 671430 or 07592 353845.