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Ibis in the news

14 Apr 1994

Using one's coffin as a bookcase

Trouw Thursday, April 14 1994

Monique Bedet

'You must be wanting to die very soon,' is a reaction cabinet-maker Hans Rademaker (31) often gets to the coffin-cum- bookcase he has designed and made for himself. 'No, but I want to be able to talk about it,' he answers firmly. By confronting death he wants to make it possible to talk about it. The coffin stands in his living room and is being used in its secondary function as a bookcase.

'Death has to be understood, just like birth, as an important part of life,' says Rademaker. 'I made the coffin because it must become easier to discuss death and integrate it with life. Death does not come after life, death belongs to life. You should be able to discuss death in an unforced, natural way, just as you talk to people about expecting a baby, bringing up children, or your relationships.'

Rademaker graduated in June 1993 from the Department of Product and 3D Design at the Utrecht School of the Arts in Utrecht, the city where he has now established himself as an independent designer and cabinet-maker.

'People are not used to thinking about their death and so very few of us take the initiative to take our leave well. Undertakers' advertisements show how eager we are to hand over everything to other people. An undertaker sees to everything, except for coping with the bereavement. Cremation lasts for 20 minutes, after which everyone has a cup of coffee and then goes home. The ambience in the crematorium is cold and the rooms are clinical. Once you get home you come face to face with the shattered pieces, because there has been no time for dealing with the grief.'

The cabinet-maker resolved to think about his death at the age of 31. 'I wanted to work out my plan in all seriousness; that is why a coffin for myself was the only method. Had I made it for somebody else I would not have come across with any credibility, because that would not have been confrontational for me. Through making my own coffin, I can now talk about death more comfortably than I could before. I have gained a great deal from it and I hope it will have the same effect on other people. I would like to get the discussion going.'

Making the coffin did indeed cause quite a fuss amongst his family and friends. 'Is there something wrong with you?' some of his acquaintances asked when they heard of his plan. 'Others said that they found it disturbing that my nearest and dearest would have to look at a blank white patch on the wallpaper when the coffin had to be removed. They find it lugubrious, but it is not. They are not, I think, used to talking about death.'

The coffin does not have a gloomy appearance. It is made of ordinary unstained wood and looks like a modern bookcase in his living room. 'That was the idea. It is not the intention to be confronted with death every time you see the bookcase. But if visitors make a remark about it, I quite simply tell them the whole story. As I see it standing there, I hardly ever think that one day I will end up lying in it. Only the making of it was an emotional experience for me.' The combination of coffin and bookcase came about because, according to Rademaker, they have a common feature.

'When you visit people in their homes you can see from their bookcases what their interests are: the contents of a bookcase are a reflection of someone's life. Just as a bookcase is the shell for the books, the body is the shell for a person's ideas. When I die my books will remain behind and I hope my ideas, that I have tried to convey, will go on living in others. The shell of my body will disappear, together with the coffin. I do not believe in life after death. I am convinced that you have to put everything you have into this life.'

The bookcase is a narrow, upright, piece of furniture made of deal. The bookshelves have a kink in the middle, so that the books rest naturally against the sides without book ends. The bookcase is transformed into a coffin by pulling the shelves forward. The shelves form the lid of the coffin precisely, fitting neatly together with tongue and groove joints. When the coffin has to be carried, the bearers are bound to each other in a symbolic manner by the handles channelled out of the continuous rim.
The whole coffin has been made from old wood. 'It used to be common for people to collect wood for their coffins while they were still young. They would store the wood in the attic and when they died, all the village carpenter had to do was make the wood into a coffin. Because I am myself always getting wood out of containers and working it into my products, I found it quite appropriate for my coffin to be made entirely out of wood that had already been used.

'Working with old wood can be tricky, since there are often all sorts of knots and holes just where you don't want them. But a flaw can be turned into a virtue. In the bothersome holes in the continuous rim I have put little pieces of wood in a contrasting colour so that these contribute to the composition as a whole.'

The cabinet-maker prefers burial to cremation. 'At a burial there is more space for your own interpretation and also for bidding farewell. I would like the coffin to be carried, so I have used light deal. It must be lowered with ordinary ropes, not by some automatic lifting device. And the family must themselves fill in the grave with spades, not just throw a tiny trowel-full of sand on top of the coffin.

'I don't want any aesthetic nonsense; life does not always run smoothly or according to plan. For me the heart of the matter is the experience. The sterile procedures, like the coffin in the crematorium sliding automatically out of sight, have come about because people don't know how to cope with death. If death were to be fitted better into life, another manner of burial would not lead to any problems.

'Dying used to be more a part of life than it is now; it happened much closer to you. People were always laid out at home and there were many rituals. With the decline of religion the rituals have also fallen out of use. But people are looking again for new observances. With my coffin, you could close the coffin a little more each day by fitting another shelf in the lid. I would gradually disappear out of view. My family could also screw down the boards themselves; the screw holes are already in place. But that depends on whether they would want to do that. Such a ritual has to grow.

'I see around me more frankness and openness about dying and observe that people are thinking about it. That is a good sign. To some extent AIDS patients have contributed to this, because they have time to prepare for death. I hope that my coffin also makes a contribution to keeping the discussion going.'

Using one's coffin as a bookcase