The role of horticulture in coffin production

As the popularity of naturally woven coffins has increased, the market has responded. This has prompted closer relationships between funeral suppliers and the horticultural industry to ensure there is sufficient supply to meet demand, both now and into the future.  

Of course, there’s always been close working relationships between the funeral industry and ‘growers’, particularly because the traditional material for making coffins has nearly always been wood (typically oak, pine, mahogany). As sustainability became more of an issue there was a push to ensure more and more wood came from FSC certified sources and so the two industries needed to work together to ensure this could be met. Today, as part of our own environmental commitment at Tributes, we make additional efforts to guarantee, where possible, that the wood utilised in our products originates from sources certified by the FSC. 

Because we specialise in woven coffins using natural products such as willow, bamboo and bulrush, we’ve had to find and develop relationships with suppliers who can not only source the materials but also possess the artisanal skills to create high quality coffins and caskets. Like our own business, many of these suppliers are family run enterprises and this has given us a direct insight into the world of growing and harvesting the materials used in our coffins. 

Growing and harvesting materials for coffins 

Bamboo and willow are the most popular materials used in woven coffin production. Their inherent natural properties make them ideal for coffins and allow them to readily meet the surging demand witnessed over the past decade. Both plants are easy to propagate, quick to grow, consistent in their growth (shape and size), flexible for weaving and strong. Once woven, they provide an aesthetically beautiful finish and when handled by skilled and experienced artists, they can be used to create stunning patterns. 

We currently source our willow from both the UK and certain regions of the Far East. In both of these locations, the growing conditions for willow are strikingly similar. Willow is easy to grow; it’s as simple as taking a cutting from an existing branch and pushing it back into the ground in its intended growing location.  Whilst becoming established, a new plant will need regular watering and so the cooler, wetter conditions of the UK and humid parts of the Far East are perfect. Fresh plants are usually propagated each year during the dormant season, which occurs in winter or spring. They can typically achieve full production within a span of 24 months. Willow will throw up long whip like branches that can grow up to 2m in a single season and the beauty of it as a material is the more you cut it, the more it will produce. So, from a sustainability perspective its perfect.   

Bamboo is very similar. Most of the bamboo we use is from clump forming varieties rather than the more invasive running bamboo cultivars – any farmer will tell you that you need crops that can be controlled and managed! Bamboo is also a ‘cut-and-come-again’ crop and in the right conditions will produce branches up to 3m in length each year – the ideal length for weaving coffins.  Both bamboo and willow are generally hardy to the elements, providing a material that will deliver year after year and which is easy to farm for craft purposes.  

Small homestead farms with onsite production 

As well as being easy to grow, natural weaving materials like bamboo and willow take up a fraction of the space that trees require and lend themselves to concentrated production on quite small plots. That is why many of our suppliers combine their farms and ‘factories’ on a single site and will be both the grower and the weaver, sharing and handing down their horticultural and artisan skills across multiple generations. It’s not uncommon to find multiple generations of a single family involved in the enterprise.  

These are families that live off the land and have done so for generations. In the case of our Far East suppliers, they are often located in quite isolated and rural areas and so the ability to make a living on their doorstep is important. They know and understand the land – it is their entire livelihood and so they treat it with respect. Some are farmers that have evolved the skill to weave their product while others are weavers that have become farmers out of demand and necessity. 

Whilst easy and plentiful to grow, the increase in demand for woven coffins has required the horticultural industry, globally, to adapt. The conditions in the UK and other parts of the world may be similar, but as we see the creeping impact of climate change, other locations are having to be sought. As you may expect, even the same species of willow grown in different locations will generate very different qualities, colours and strengths of material and so like arable farming, there is a push to create cultivars that respond to a changing climate whilst maintaining consistency in their outputs.  

We appreciate how intrinsic the role of horticulture is to the work we do, and the time, effort and skill which goes into nurturing these materials. We always aim to instil the same level of care and attention when developing and supplying our range of coffins so that we can play our part in helping families in grief.  

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