A casket and urn business started by Maggie and Andy Mitchell could very well have ended when Andy suddenly died last year. Instead, Maggie has soldiered on and the business is thriving – there are stockists all around New Zealand and Maggie has plans to eventually export.

Andy died suddenly in August, 2017, due to a rare auto-immune disease.

“It was very traumatic and sudden and life altering.” Maggie said.

Battling through her grief, Maggie designed his casket.

The Mitchells have always felt that a funeral should be a celebration of life, not a commemoration of death. As part of that belief, they felt that they should be able to bring some life to a casket and, in particular, that of Andy’s father, Stuart. Little did the couple know that Andy would be farewelled so soon in one of their own caskets.

The idea for the business – Departure Lounge Caskets – came about when Andy’s father Stuart had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, meaning the family had time to get things in order before saying goodbye.

Andy had worked with Stuart building wooden boats and when it came time to talking with him about funeral arrangements, Andy asked if he could use Stuart’s kauri to build him a casket. Stuart thought that was a waste of good kauri and told him to use packaging material from the packaging business Maggie and Andy had at the time.

Andy was very creative so it came about that he designed his father’s casket in 2004.

“For a family, it’s wonderful to have something personal and for a service to show something beautiful is very helpful in the grief process. We benefitted from the process. We worked together as a family, made it, designed it and it represented Andy’s father.”

Andy’s mum also died, her casket was bright red and had pukekos on it.

The couple thought that if making and decorating caskets for Andy’s parents had benefitted them, perhaps the same process would benefit other people.

“What we do is create a very personalised offering so the funeral becomes a celebration of life, not just about the death.

“The personalisation is the key message for our business and makes us unique.”

The environmentally aware business creates the caskets and urns from timber from sustainably sourced forestry. The company offers a range of 13 images that people can choose from or they can use their own images. They also have the option to choose from a natural range of caskets that can be left as is, or decorated.

“Some people have used blackboard paint and then people have written messages and things like that.

“It wasn’t that many years ago that within the funeral industry there weren’t that many choices. Whereas now, there’s personalisation and the ability to celebrate somebody’s life and actually bring more life to a service.

“Andy was fantastic with wood and had his packaging business for over 20 years. He created many innovative designs and unusual packaging throughout the years – including crates to transport alpacas and a giant-sized 25m crate. The challenge and the intrigue and to be able to create something that’s innovative was great for him. That experience enabled him to develop the caskets which hold international patents for their clever design.”

In 2016 the couple teamed up with SODA Inc, a Hamilton-based business incubator.

“We went through the SODA Lift program which helped us launch into the market – it was really helpful.

“We distribute nationwide via Auckland, so when a funeral director calls we send it out. I also have a stock of caskets in the Waikato so I can supply the local market as well.”

Maggie acknowledges she could easily have decided to wind the business up when her husband died. But she realised how beneficial the process of personalising a loved one’s casket is having designed Andy’s casket.

“I used pictures to show what he was like. His was a racing car, because he raced. It was his RX7 and his brakes were really hot and glowing. It was a moving picture. And then the other side was a picture of Ngunguru where he grew up.

“It certainly helped and I was very proud. We had the next 30 years planned out so it really changed the focus. But I’m really proud of what he did so I want to keep the business growing for him, which is where I’m coming from with what I’m doing at the moment with SODA. I’m developing a plan forward.

“When you’re an entrepreneur you’re an island and you’re out there on your own. With SODA you feel part of a collective, part of a whanau that are all looking after you. They all want you to succeed as much as you want to succeed yourself. You go through highs and lows, but you walk into SODA and you get an uplifting motivation. It’s that complete support… that you know that you’ve got someone watching your back.”

Maggie is just about to finish the SODA Lift program which she started back in 2016 with Andy.

“It’s quite an achievement, to sit back and look at the big picture. They’re beautiful caskets and having the ability to personalise them for your loved one is honouring them and giving them something final in life, creating that final farewell.”

She hopes to eventually export, with Australia the first international country in her sights, but at the moment, is targeting the local market. Any funeral director anywhere in New Zealand can stock Departure Lounge Casket products.

Maggie said funeral directors phone and say families want their caskets and the fact that people are asking for them is really exciting.

“The people who’ve used them love them. The funeral directors that have used them love them. It’s just about reaching the ones that haven’t used them.

“Having had the experience and having made something beautiful for Andy, it gave me a lasting sense of doing him proud and I want to keep doing that,” she said.

To learn more about Departure Lounge Caskets visit the website here.

SODA Inc is a Hamilton-based business incubator, who works with founders from all industry sectors to create a customised program with the help and support they need and go to market on a case-by-case basis, both locally and internationally, to find the perfect advisor for them to work with.

Content provided by The Waikato Story.