Three years ago, highly acclaimed furniture maker John Plumb was asked to create an item which would have a profound effect on his career.

He was asked to make a coffin for the late Alpay Torgut, who was the founder of Cardigan’s Eco Shop, the town’s community forest garden and a devoted pioneer of the permaculture route.

“I was told that the coffin had to be environmentally friendly, it needed to be built to a certain measurement, but that was all,” says John from his workshop in Llangoedmor, near Cardigan.

“But as soon as I was asked to make it, I could already imagine the finished product.”

John sourced some recycled wood and began making the coffin which would become the catalyst for his business venture, Ecological Coffins.

“Before I finished making Alpay’s coffin, I knew this was what I would be doing from this point onwards, as there was nothing else quite like it in the funeral industry at that point in time.

“And over the last three years, I can see just how much thought people are putting in to their funerals and how people, right up to the end, are conscious about the environmental impact that their death, as well as their lives, might be making.”

This week John was named winner of the Green Company of the Year award after being shortlisted for three individual categories in the Association of Green Funeral Directors Good Funeral Awards 2023, the other categories being the best green product and the best coffin supplier.

“It was an important achievement which I suppose reinforced my decision to become a coffin maker back in January 2021,” says John.

His previous business, Stanway Wood Craft, was established in 1999 following a career in printing and packaging.

“I began designing furniture from my home in Gloucestershire and this continued after we moved to Wales in 2001," he says.

“In many ways the transition from making beautiful pieces of furniture to making coffins is a natural one, as both are made using wood.

“And just like a piece of furniture can command a particular focus in a room, so too can a coffin become a focus for people in the lead-up to a funeral and also on the day of the funeral itself.

“I often have people come to visit me who are preparing their own funerals and are putting everything in writing so thattheir families will know exactly how the funeral should be organised.  And I’ve even made a coffin for a few people who’ve chosen to keep it in their homes until they die.”

John is often asked to paint a design at the foot of the coffin in a water-based paint, which may have a particular relevance to the dead person. His designs have included the Triskele Celtic design and a saw which was painted onto the coffin of a carpenter.

Tivyside Advertiser: John's Triskele Celtic designJohn's Triskele Celtic design (Image: Ecological Coffins)

The coffin's rope handles can also be covered with velvet sleeves which are available in a range of colours.

John went on to say that an increasing number of families are opting to organise their loved one’s funeral themselves, without the assistance of a funeral director.

“And this helps people to have a much more direct involvement,” explains John.

“If you go back to the days before a funeral became a monetised thing organised by men in black suits and top hats, a funeral was a very important event not just for the deceased’s family but for the community as a whole. The women would wash the body, the men would build the coffin and then members of the family would carry the coffin to the grave and bury it.”

The wood used by John to make his coffins is carefully selected pallet wood, either larch or pine which are the woods favoured in the UK, or oak which comes from America. He only uses wood that has been heat-treated.

“I won’t use wood which may have been treated with a preservative or any form of chemical as this would naturally go against the entire ethos of my businesses. The heat treatment dries the wood but also kills off any bugs that may have got into it.”

Interestingly enough, wooden coffins used in cremations are much kinder to the environment than wicker or cardboard coffins as a typical cremation sends between 160 kg and 190 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere due to fossil fuel consumption, which is the equivalent of a 470-mile car journey. A cardboard or wicker coffin can add additional emissions of up to 40kg.

In 2024 John is hoping to set up ‘Coffin Club Ceredigion’ where people can meet to find out how they can plan and arrange their own send-off.

“Rather than leave the funeral to relatives who may not have the first idea of what the deceased may actually want, this will give people the chance to find out what’s available and begin planning things for themselves," he said.

“Yes, there are times when making a coffin can be emotionally tough, but I can safely say that every single one of the funerals I’ve been involved over the past three years with has been beautiful. The families come to see me with their memories and their stories, and there’s always a degree of happiness as well as sadness.

“Becoming a coffin maker has been a remarkable transition but it’s also giving me a great deal of fulfilment.”