Noe person or persons whatsoever shall be buryed in any Shirt Shift or Sheete made of or mingled with Flax Hempe, Silke, Haire, Gold or Silver or other then what shall be made of Wooll onely’
In 1667, the above law, the ‘Burial in Woollen Act’ was passed. Its’ purpose was to stimulate growth in the British textile industry. The only exclusions allowed at the time were victims of the plague and the poor.
Fast forward then to the present day, and being buried in wool has been seeing something of a resurgence in popularity. But this time, it isn’t the economy that needs to be saved, it’s the planet.
As the dissatisfaction with traditional funerals wanes and the awareness of the need for a ‘greener’ option grows, families have been seeking ever more inventive ways to dispose of their loved ones. And funeral furniture providers have been happy to oblige. There has been a 10% growth in coffins made from alternative materials, with wicker and cardboard emerging as clear favourites. But lately providers have been getting more and more creative and there are now coffins made from willow, wool, bamboo, banana leaf, water hyacinth, felt and recycled paper on the market.
Wool is one of the materials preferred by those who have looked into planning a funeral independently and the only supplier in the country is Yorkshire based A.W. Hainsworth, a n eighth-generation family business dating back 236 years. Last year saw them celebrate the 10th anniversary of the world’s first patented woollen coffin, working alongside JC Atkinson, one of the country’s top suppliers of wooden coffins. The coffins were premiered at The National Funeral exhibition accompanied by a number of sheep that walked the floor to raise awareness.
Handmade in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, each coffin uses three British wool fleeces. In 2011, the company was selling 15 woollen coffins a month, now it sells 120 over the same period in the UK and sales worldwide, including the UK, stand at around 160-180 per month, with greatest demand coming from as far as Australia and New Zealand.
The sustainability of each coffin has been carefully considered and perfected over the last 10 years; the woollen outer layer is hand fitted around a recycled cardboard frame. The frame is then reinforced with an MDF base board for rigidity and stability, and lined with a soft woollen wadding for a mattress base. The interior of each coffin lined with cotton, attractively edged with jute and completed with a covered pillow, and the exterior is finished with a beautiful blanket stitch detail, jute handles and simple wooden toggle fastenings.
Hainsworth’s Marketing Manager Julie Roberts is justifiably proud, not only of the product’s green credentials but also the other benefits it offers bereaved families. The coffin itself, as she says is “less harsh, not the traditional coffin shape” and this appeals certainly to younger or more sensitive mourners who may be upset by the angles and solid appearance of a traditional wood coffin.
The colour too, has played a role in what families have chosen. Originally available in white or brown, the company found that the brown wasn’t as popular and decided to change it to grey. Suddenly, it became more popular. A choice that Julie puts down to the coffin now resembling
“a man in a woollen overcoat.”
As more and more families look to less traditional ways of celebrating the passing of their loved ones, the comments from families on Hainsworth’s website bear testament to this as one family said, it transformed the funeral from;
“dark and bleak to soft, warm, loving and a bit beautiful. It felt a bit more like putting dad to ‘bed”
In fact, the soft angles and the tactile qualities of the wool have made it a popular choice for parents who have suffered the tragic loss of a child. It is light enough to be carried by one person and is, in her words, “evocative of a Moses basket”. She has received letters of thanks from many parents who have said that the soft, warm feel of the wool has made the loss somehow more bearable.
The difficulty for Hainsworth however, lies not with the popularity of the wool coffin, its’ look or its’ green credentials, but rather that it isn’t being promoted as a viable choice by funeral directors who are still reluctant to offer families anything too far from coffins made in the traditional shape and from traditional materials. They are still reliant on families who have done their own research into 100 sustainable options and are aware of the choices on offer.
But support for the wool coffins initially came from a very significant source, not other than HRH The Prince of Wales, whose green beliefs are well-documented, who declared “I discovered a company that makes a woollen coffin – Coffins ladies and gentlemen to die for!” at the opening of the wool modern exhibition in 2009.
So, as funerals move slowly away from the traditional and companies look to ways to discover greener and more sustainable ways to say farewell to our loved ones, maybe, like we did some 350 years ago, wool coffins hold the key.