As a teenager, Julian Atkinson hammered coffin nails to earn his pocket money. Today, he’s the boss of green family business JC Atkinson, which makes 75,000 coffins a year – that’s around fifteen per cent of the coffins used to lay people to rest in the UK.
As well as traditional wood, the coffin manufacturers are behind Fairtrade willow and wicker coffins and bespoke picture coffins, as celebration of life funerals with a personal touch have begun to capture people’s imaginations.
Here, we take a peek inside the JC Atkinson factory in Washington, Tyne and Wear and discover the story behind how the coffins they supply to the nation’s funeral homes are made.
On the coffin factory floor
Coffins in production in JC Atkinson's workshops
There’s always a lot going on at JC Atkinson’s coffin factory. “It’s not like a car production line,” says Julian. “There can be a variety of things coming on and products being made, at once.”
Traditional, picture coffins and eco coffins are built, planed, carved and embellished by hand and with the help of custom-made machinery, while others are personalised with bright colours, words and photos.
“The automated machinery’s fascinating to watch,” says Julian.
“Although it’s an odd subject, it’s a fun place to work and we’re a busy entrepreneurial company. Much of our success is down to the longevity of the staff – we’ve had people work here from the ages of 15 to 65 and that’s a hell of a knowledge base. I’m lucky to work with people who have grown up with it and there’s no substitute for that.
“We wouldn’t have that if it was stuffy and unbearable. People never leave – they seem to get sucked into the vortex!”
Self-assembly coffins in the 1930s
John Clifford's workshop in the 1930s
Julian’s grandad, John Clifford, started out in the 1930s, cutting and seasoning planks of wood to make self-assembly ‘coffin sets’. He supplied to homes based near the collieries. It was part of a funeral director’s role, back then, to make their clients’ coffins, so Clifford’s ‘coffin set’ was a clever labour-saving innovation.
“My grandad did all the heavy work, sawing the planks, seasoning, reducing the thickness and sanding them ready for the funeral director to cut the timber to exact size and put them together finish and polish,” says Julian.
“In those days, coffins were made to measure, within an inch of a person’s size. Now the sizes are more generic and we ready-make coffins in half a dozen sizes, but they can still be made to measure as exceptions to the standard sized coffins”
From father to son
When Julian’s dad, Alan, first joined the business he worked side by side with John Clifford.
“The company grew and flourished, with Grandad looking after the coffin sets and Dad developing the ready-made coffin side,” says Julian.
Alan’s side of the enterprise began to grow and grow, as specialist funeral homes began to start up in business and older firms began to modernise. Funeral directors no longer had a wish or need to assemble coffins for their clients, with Alan able to supply beautifully-made coffins that were completely fitted, finished and polished.
Thanks to Alan’s innovation, funeral directors could focus more attention on helping the bereaved. By the time his father retired in 1966, the coffin manufacturer was heading in a new direction and going from strength to strength, thanks to Alan’s growing range of coffins for people to choose from.
Times were changing, too. During the 1970s, the factory was granted special Government status to work beyond the scheduled power cuts which were imposed to save energy during the coal miners’ strikes. The generators from a nearby pit were re-routed to supply the factory with the power it needed to carry on.
What does your dad do?
Julian, right, with his dad Alan, breaking the earth for the foundations of a new coffin factory
Alan had begun his working life in a very hands-on way, so it was never a surprise to see him on the shop floor, checking on the joinery and making sure the machinery was running smoothly, at any time of night or day.
Well-respected by hundreds of funeral directors he’d grown to know well, Alan was a familiar sight in his delivery van, with a young Julian accompanying him on his travels.
“Thanks to dad, the business became a part of my DNA,” says Julian. “That’s what happens in good family business. From getting to know the names and personalities behind funeral homes we still work with, through to the practical and commercial sense I picked up from him, I was very lucky to spend my formative days shadowing him and I felt very proud of him.
“When I was a kid and you started a new class at school, you’d invariably be asked what your parents did. Mum was a teacher, but it was always my dad I told them about.
“When I’d tell them how he made coffins, there’d be gasps and sharp intakes of breath – people didn’t realise there were places making coffins. It was seen as something really curious.”
Green funeral revolution
The opening of the new JC Atkinson coffin factory in the 1990s
Julian took over the running of Atkinson’s coffins in the mid-1990s. Just like his dad had done before him, he decided that some things were due a change. One of the things that mattered to Julian was reducing the company’s environmental impact.
In the 1960s and 70s, dark wood coffins were considered appropriate and dignified. Many coffins could have been made of rainforest-grown mahogany, Julian explains, because he couldn’t prove the wood’s provenance.
So in 2000, Atkinson’s became the first coffin factory to gain the international Forest Stewardship Council’s certification, a scheme which reassures customers that wood and paper products are made from material sourced from well-managed forests.
“We have worked to ensure that all our coffins are FSC certified or when that’s not possible, that they are traceable and have proven sustainable sources,” says Julian.
Bamboo, wool, water hyacinth and willow are among the materials used to make JC Atkinson coffins
Today, all the wood used in JC Atkinson’s coffins comes from verified suppliers. Julian has ensured all coffins he makes or orders are eco-friendly or ethically sourced, while the woven and wicker coffins it sells are Fairtrade certified.
Besides wicker coffins it also provides coffins made from other natural materials including willow, bamboo, seagrass, water hyacinth, and British wool.
All its coffins are lined with a biodegradable material – a green alternative to plastic liners used in many modern coffins.
Alan’s 83 now and still pops into the factory to see how everyone is getting on.
“I think Dad’s impressed. The roots of what he had is still there, but he can’t get over the transformation,” says Julian. “But then, that’s probably what his dad would have said to him.”
The coffin manufacturers are proud of their environmental values
There’s a smell of fresh wood shavings in the air at the factory and if it’s chilly outdoors, it’s kept cosy with an eco-friendly biomass boiler, fuelled by its own waste wood pieces.
Atkinson’s coffins won the Sunday Times Best Green Company Award for reducing its C02 emissions, in 2008.
The company even has enough leftovers to make wood pellets to sell as biofuel to other green-minded factories, so there’s no manufacturing waste from its processes.
“I don’t think it necessarily costs any more money to be green,” says Julian. “There are also subsidies that can help – the Government’s grown a whole green industry from nothing, in the last 10 years.”
10,000 new trees
People can still choose traditional solid wood and veneered coffins in many varieties mindful of the environment
The company plants a tree for every one of its Country Range coffins that’s bought – and it’s planted 10,000, so far. As part of the scheme, it also donates £10 to charity GroundWork UK’s Green Doctor Initiative to help people combat fuel poverty.
Julian’s won a Good Funeral Award for his work supporting funeral directors to embrace green funeral options.
“The green agenda’s become almost more important than religion,” he says. “Fewer people have a strong faith anymore, but they don’t want to trash the plant on the way out. Most people will take greener options if they can.”
Making eco-friendly willow coffins in Noakhali, Bangladesh
It’s important for Julian that that everything the company offers for sale, which also includes beautiful ash caskets and other memorial products, comes from a responsible and traceable source.
If suppliers are not part of an accredited scheme like Fairtrade, he visits the suppliers himself to ensure the factories work at least to those principles, such as providing their employees with good working conditions, correct rates of pay, paid holiday leave, assistance with education and making sure they don’t employ underage people.
To ensure that every product is traceable, he doesn’t buy from distributors, but directly from the people who make the goods. One such product he sources from overseas is metal urns, made in India.
“What we can’t source from an accredited scheme, we always personally visit,” he says. “Of course that’s what you do – you can’t have one thing that’s ethical and one that’s not.
“If it’s not right, you don’t do it. Everything we produce is ethically sound.”
Home from home
It's important to Julian to ensure that all manufacturing processes are ethical and environmentally sound
The Wearside coffin manufacturer works in partnership with another green company, Oasis Coffins, to produce its beautiful range of woven willow coffins and other eco coffins made from plant materials such as bamboo and water hyacinth.
The factory that makes them is located in the rural Noakhali district of northern Bangladesh. It provides secure work for 70 people, as well as social support and help with healthcare and education.
It’s a home from home when Julian visits and he feels confident of its high standards.
“It’s like walking into our Tyne & Wear factory. That’s what’s good about it,” he says.
Amazing picture coffins
JC Atkinson's colourful coffins depict a host of hobbies and interests
When JC Atkinson first tried making colourful painted coffins in the 1990s, they weren’t quite sure how the idea would take off.
But people loved them and have embraced a less sombre alternative funeral choice.
“We started getting people saying: ‘I want this on a coffin…’ and we engraved coffins and made stickers from logos and pictures to complete the designs,” says Julian.
“One of my coffin lids was featured in the Sunday Times in 1992, as the concept was so much of a departure from the traditional at the time.
“At first, funeral directors would simply give clients our catalogue to look through, but now they are quite relaxed about talking people through their options, so our designs can be customised to any requirement.”
Digital technology has opened up many more ways to be creative. Now, personalised coffins are very much a part of the modern funeral wish list.
The factory has an entire department devoted to personalising coffins, with everything from family photos to pictures of favourite sport, hobby, motor, flowers or military regiment.
Modern funeral trends
Baby Boomers have influenced the growing demand for personalised funerals
Julian says the generation who revolutionised fashion, music and alternative lifestyles in the Sixties is largely behind the modern funeral revolution.
“People who grew up in austerity during the Fifties and are now in their 80s still have more traditional tastes, but those who grew up in the Sixties have very different values and some are now reaching an age where they are beginning to die,” he says.
“It’s natural if you think about it – someone who grew up in the Sixties knew how to exercise choice. In the Fifties, people had to make do and maintain a stiff upper lip.”
Bespoke coffins tell a story
Many people like the idea of a personalised coffin decorated with family photos from their loved one's life
With the support of the JC Atkinson team, funeral directors’ bereaved clients can choose from a wealth of images, colours patterns and styles to create a picture coffin that’s personalised with meaningful words and photos.
“Things are becoming more bespoke and people often request pictures of their garden, or the place where they met, on their coffin,” says Julian. “It can be very sweet.”
One client who knew exactly what she wanted requested a full-length photo of Cliff Richard on the inside lid of her coffin.
“Another requested photos of male strippers,” adds Julian. “We talked and toned them down a bit on that, but we generally leave the censorship to the clients!”
Choosing a coffin
Julian was presented with The Good Funeral Awards' Bridging the Gap Award for his endeavour within the funeral business, in 2016
Julian admits he didn’t predict the funeral industry’s new-wave when he began in the coffin-making business.
“I grew up thinking that eventually no-one would want a coffin,” he says. “Back in the Eighties, it used to be, ‘Just put me in a bin bag.’
“Buying a coffin is a bit like buying car tax – no one really wants to do it. But if you choose a coffin that relates, people do have a real value for it.”
So what kind of coffin would Julian choose for himself, when the time comes?
“It’s something I should really know by now,” he says, considering. “I guess it would be a traditional solid oak coffin. Something we make here in the factory would mean a lot to me.”