Continuing Life Ledger’s series of conversations with people that are shaping today’s bereavement sector, we spoke to Sophia Campbell, the founder of Dorset’s Woven Farwell Coffins.
LL: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to find yourself in the death/bereavement sector?
SC: I first started working with willow ten years ago, making baskets as a bereavement therapy after my mum’s death. Mum and her dying process was an amazing inspiration to me, she had a strong sense of purpose and a philosophical way of understanding what was happening to her. As my first big bereavement, her parting gift was to allow me a relationship with death that was based on love and support instead of fear. The result was that I felt compelled to work in the death sector, but the pieces had yet to fall into place.
LL: How did the Woven Farewell Coffins start?
SC: I had spent 6 years focusing on organic farming, then in the space of two months my sister was suddenly killed in action and my first child was born. As anyone who has experienced sudden loss will appreciate, my life was thrown up in the air.
When the dust settled, I realised life was too short not to follow what I was compelled towards! And I decided to start making willow coffins.
I studied with Sussex Willow Coffins and started selling at the beginning of 2019. It was mostly through word of mouth at the start.
LL: What is the main aim of the Woven Farewell Coffins?
SC: Through Woven Farewell Coffins, I want to add my weight to the push for more sustainable funeral solutions, help keep the momentum up and drive to offer families more environmentally friendly choices.
I focus on sustainable materials: the willow I use is from Somerset, the wood that helps make the lid and base frame is locally sourced, I use hemp rope for the handles, and my linings are all biodegradable.
Beyond this I donate a portion of the profits to the Woodland Trust, I believe I’m one of the only coffin makers in the UK to donate to charity. Supporting the Woodland Trust through my work feels like a natural fit and, for me, represents how death is nestled alongside life.
LL: What have been the biggest challenges Woven Farewell Coffins has faced to date?
SC: Being a young woman doing something different in the funeral sector has been a challenge. I started weaving coffins with my first born in a sling on my back, and after a few months of her in childcare I became pregnant again and now weave coffins with my second born on my back.
It has definitely been challenging having kids around in the workshop for a lot of the past three years. But I have always been able to maintain a professional speed of response to orders and work to make sure I’ve always got stock coffins in store.
Although willow coffins are now more widely accepted, the funeral sector at large can be slow to change, it took a while for some funeral directors to warm to what I do. But at the same time, I’ve also had a lot of amazing support too, from funeral directors and members of the public.
LL: What do you feel have been Woven Farewell Coffins’ biggest successes to date?
SC: This year I won an award for Best Product in the Best Businesswoman Awards, which was a wonderful surprise and felt like reward for all the time, effort, and love I’ve put into Woven Farewell Coffins over the last three years. But I still feel my biggest success has been managing to launch and run a successful business while still having time for 2 young children.
LL: Where would you ideally like to see Woven Farewell Coffins in ten years’ time?
SC: I would like to be part of a funeral sector coalition researching and lobbying for top environmental standards in the funeral industry. There’s a lot of people passionate about climate change working in this sector, and a lot of unsustainable practices that need to change.
Affordability is very important to me; I would like to develop different payment options so that those with more can help subsidise coffins for those with less. Rental coffins are another good way to provide affordable coffins and I’m excited to be currently developing the first commercial re-usable/rental willow coffin!
I’m also actively working towards purchasing land to start a natural burial ground. My partner and I are passionate about, and experienced in, land sustainability and we would love to run a burial ground and supply willow coffins for the “residents” that rest there.
LL: What do you feel is the single biggest issue currently facing the death/bereavement sector?
SC: Climate change and ecological death/bereavement practices – how the funeral sector can evolve to contribute to biodiversity rather than pollution. And that these ecological practices should be accessible to all, regardless of income or cultural background. What would we like our final act in life to represent? What lasting legacy will future generations inherit from u?. There are some great things being done on this front already, and there’s loads more still to do.
LL: Which other organisation/s or people really impress you in the death/bereavement sector?
SC: There are many to choose from. I absolutely love what Pahiki Caskets in Hawaii are doing, check out their beautiful wooden coffins! Closer to home, the Natural Death Centre are doing great work. I recently spoke at the Lifting the Lid virtual international festival on death and dying that was a very inspiring and creative festival, also the Good Grief festival in the UK is a very informative and multidisciplinary event. I think this is an amazingly innovative and creative time in the sector and I am excited about what will come next.