In a remote barn in Dorset, with pigeons and podcasts for company, Sophia Campbell is quietly revolutionising funerals with her reusable coffins and environmentally-friendly farewells, Tracie Beardsley reports.
As we talk, Sophia is creating a beautiful willow coffin for a man whose photo is propped nearby – families send pictures of loved ones so she gets an idea of the character for whom she’s creating a coffin. ‘Cradle to grave’ has never felt more apt – the design is an adult Moses basket. Unlike the dread that fills me from a traditional coffin, I’m happy to run my hands over the smooth weave, finding it comforting to the touch. Rustic hemp ropes replace cold metallic handles. There’s understated cotton lining inside – no gaudy satin in sight! The weave is so tight you can’t see through the willow and these fragile-looking coffins will hold up to 23 stone. Sophia’s business was born out of bereavement. She’d begun weaving willow when she was
nursing her dying mother, who died when Sophia was 22. She continued weaving, finding ‘great bereavement therapy’ and began to sell baskets as a sideline.
Then life threw her joy and tragedy. Eight weeks after the birth of her first child, Ava, Sophia’s 26 year old
sister, Anna, was killed in action in Syria.
“I had this incredible experience of my life being thrown up into the air – becoming a mum and losing another family member. It took me a while to percolate my emotions, but I came away with a better awareness of the preciousness and the sheer transience of life, prompting me to reset my goals.”
With ten-month Ava in a sling on her back, Sophia mastered willow coffin making and launched Woven Farewell four years ago. Now her second child, one-year old son Idris, sits on her back as she works.
Sophia’s environmental ethos is impressive. This is no ‘greenwashing’ but a true commitment to a greener
footprint in an industry that is highly polluting. The willow is grown just down the road in Somerset, wood for the base slats comes from Bridport’s Eggardon Saw Mill and biodegradable plastic or organic cotton is used
for the lining. All coffins are biodegradable, releasing no harmful gases during cremation.
Sophia even donates five per cent of her business profits to the Woodland Trust. She says:
“I’m genuine in my sustainability policy. My philosophy is very much that life and death are simply part of the same coin.’’
Added to this is what Sophia describes as “a twin funnelling of a cost-of-living crisis and the climate crisis. Funerals are neither cheap nor ‘green’. “In America, rental coffins are a lot more mainstream. There’s a panel at the end of the coffin which folds down and the coffin liner slides in and out, so it’s very hygienic. The deceased doesn’t touch the sides of the rental coffin at all.
“We don’t have this culture in the UK. It requires a mind-shift on a taboo subject, as well as greater awareness of hygiene standards and how the aesthetics work – so people feel they can trust something new. “
Willow coffins are made with one continuous panel so can’t be reused … yet! Sophia is designing one with a collapsible willow foot panel that she aims to test with local funeral businesses – probably the first of its kind in the world. She’s also working on a willow canopy to go over a cardboard coffin so that it can be lifted off and reused many times.
A cathartic process
Sophia welcomes bereaved families to her workshop and they can even get involved in the making of the willow coffin. “Giving people the opportunity to see the coffin before the funeral and, if they wish, take part in making it, can be cathartic and an important part of the bereavement process. I’ve even had someone help me weave their own coffin.”
Sophia is already a national award-winner – silver in Best Businesswomen Awards 2021 – but she is modest about her achievements. “There is a definite mind-shift towards more sustainable, family-centric funerals. I feel like a very small peg in the loom of a bigger momentum. I’ve never had a livelihood like this – every order feels like an absolute honour.”
Quick-fire questions with Sophia:
A-list dinner party guests past or present?
My mum and sister.
Books on your bedside?
A mixture of inspirational and factual – meditation, women’s sexual health and an autobiography of a cancer
How do you relax?
I love gardening and flowers. I’m also one of those crazy cold water swimmers.
by Tracie Beardsley