Changing the narrative

Copy of the Return to Sender Caskets article in the September 2020 issue of Verve Magazine.

Perversely, one of the few positives to come out of the pandemic—in Aotearoa, anyway, at least—has been a reduction in deaths due to fewer people out and about spreading germs, something Julie Gilchrist, Business Manager of Return to Sender, the eco-friendly casket-makers, has certainly noticed. But, as the saying goes, as one of the life’s only two certainties (along with taxes), the business of death doesn’t shut up shop for a lockdown. And it’s a business that Return to Sender has set about changing for the better.

Established in 2007, the company’s handcrafted coffins are quite literally works of art, with their multi-award-winning Artisan Eco-Casket having been exhibited at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York. Not content with leading the way aesthetically, Onehunga-based Return to Sender boasts some serious environmental credentials both with their traditional and contemporary handcrafted caskets.

Rimu has been swapped out for a more sustainable native timber, Silver Beech (tawhai).

“We do everything as sustainably as possible,” says Julie. “All of our raw materials are from sustainable plantations and untreated. Our finishes are either water-based or natural wax. The decision to replace rimu with the faster growing and sustainable Silver Beech has not only been positive for the planet but also a firm favourite with families. When buried, Silver Beech breaks down up to three times faster than rimu. It’s another way we’re trying to alter people’s perception of caskets and sustainability, while making it more affordable.”

“We donate trees to the children who grow them and then have planting days.”

Is the sustainable casket industry growing?

“Definitely. I just spoke to somebody recently whose father had passed, and she said that he just wanted a sustainable coffin. It was such a shock for her that he died but she found comfort knowing that he could get what he wanted. Something that suited his beliefs and represented the way that he lived life.”

Since the company’s inception, Return to Sender has donated more than 15,000 trees, but, three years ago, Julie decided that they could do more “to give back to the land” and partnered with Trees for Survival, who work with schools to restore natural habitats.  “We donate a tree for every casket sold. The children who grow them then have planting days,” says Julie. “And the species are always targeted to the local area. For example, cabbage trees are used in places with soil erosion as they have good root systems, and kōwhai trees are used to attract birds like the tūī and the kererū.” Julie makes the point that sustainability is not just about renewable forests and the like, but educating future generations to be excited about the land and their guardianship of it.

Another Return to Sender sustainability tactic is to donate offcuts to crafty employees and schools.  Upon a visit with one school, the business manager attended a woodworking class, where some of the girls were greatly inspired to learn that Return to Sender has a strong team of women (as well as men) both in leadership and in the workshop – another career possibility.

It’s about you & the ones left behind

“It’s so satisfying knowing that you are making what is a heartwrenching process a little bit easier, a little more positive,” says Julie, “especially when dealing with personalised caskets. Families arrive with a selection of photos or tell us what designs they want, and we get to hear the stories of their loved ones. It’s lovely to be able to do that with them.”

One of our favourite personalised caskets. The family wanted a Wizard of Oz theme; rainbow, yellow brick road, a field of flowers and ruby slippers.

Julie wishes that there was more communication and openness in the discussing of grief and death.  “They don’t have to be scary topics,” she says. “With all the advances in the medical sector there is still a 100 percent chance that you’ll die. It’s something that we can’t just deny and so we need to be talking about it more.” Funerals should be looked at in a similar fashion to weddings, she believes, but rather than a celebration of future lives, a celebration of a life that was: “That is so important for the people that are left behind, to have that grieving process.”Grief is different for everybody. There are no rules, and there is nothing to say when you should stop. It is, however, something that we all must go through, and it is okay to admit that you are hurting and to ask for help.”

“I like to help people,” says Julie, “and take comfort knowing that I can do that, if only a little, through my job.”


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