HASTINGS, New Zealand — As she painted her husband’s coffin, Judith Aitken was in an excellent mood.

“He’s a Scottish lad,” she said, pointing out the logo of the Heart of Midlothian soccer club adorning the head end. Near it she’d added a fighter plane used in the pivotal Battle of Britain in World War II. 

“He loves his Spitfires,” she explained.

Someday, Aitken said, her husband will be buried in that coffin, surrounded by painted reminders of his earthly enthusiasms — although not anytime soon, she hopes. The two are still in their 50s, in a country with an average life expectancy of nearly 82.

Aitken’s cheerful approach to death hardly makes her an oddball in New Zealand. Across the country of almost 5 million, five major groups like the one Aitken joined in the North Island city of Hastings have sprung up in recent years for people wanting to build and customize their caskets. They’re called coffin clubs, and members have a range of motivations, from thumbing a nose at death to warding off loneliness to cutting funeral costs.

Or all of the above.

“Why spend $5,000 on a coffin and go out ordinary, when you can spend $500 and go out fabulous?” Aitken, an administrative assistant for an insurance broker, said to a reporter visiting the Hastings club recently.

Coffin club member Judith Aitken puts the finishing touches on her husbands casket. She finished painting her own coffin last year. (TWP)

The clubs usually charge a fee to join. Members can then choose among various coffin designs and sizes, with prices ranging from about $250 to more than $500.

After a former palliative care nurse launched the first club in Rotorua in 2010, the “Makers of Fine, Affordable Underground Furniture,” as they describe themselves, have inspired thousands. The movement has generated spinoffs in other countries, including Australia and the United States, but nowhere else has it gone so mainstream.

In Hastings, a former gang member worked on a coffin a few yards from Aitken as she added two black kittens to her husband’s “final bedroom,” as members call it.

Andre Tipi-Rangi William Waikato-Skudder, now 50, spent more than two decades in prison for gang violence and rape. He denies the rape charge, despite his conviction.

Now, though, a broad smile split his full-face traditional indigenous tattoo when he spoke about his newfound passion: building and decorating coffins for others. 

“I think I’ll be painting coffins for the rest of my life,” he said. “I love it, bro.”

He lifted up a finished coffin with images of bird feathers and a New Zealand mountain. He’d rushed to complete it for a local indigenous elder who was on his death bed but suddenly “has come back to life.”

“So we’ve parked this up now,” Waikato-Skudder said, standing next to a whiteboard reminding members in red letters about “Urgent Coffins.”

Coffin club members refer to their custom caskets as "final bedrooms" and "underground furniture." (TWP)

Hundreds of coffins have been produced by clubs like this over the past nine years. Life may have limits, but creativity doesn’t, it appears: From a go-kart to a red mini-tram, there’s nothing that can’t inspire a coffin in New Zealand.

For those short of ideas, a poster in the club’s meeting room presented some of the latest trends. A popcorn-box-shaped coffin. A coffin transformed into a bright red London phone box. And in an option unlikely to find many takers in New Zealand, a coffin painted as a giant U.S. flag.

Waikato-Skudder said he and Aitken were far from the only ones to feel revived by being part of the club community, noting that older members, especially former artists or craftspeople, seem to have found new purpose in what is probably the last chapter of their lives.

“I think these people are very mature in the way they’re facing the inevitable,” he said.

For some, the club could even prolong that last chapter.

“It’s keeping them alive,” said Aitken, who praised the “great feeling of belonging” the club brings.

Like many Western countries, New Zealand has a rapidly aging population and a raft of related social problems, including the negative effects of living alone on health, well-being and mortality. A 2017 study by the University of Otago found that about one-fifth of all frail, elderly New Zealanders self-identified as feeling lonely, based on a large-scale government assessment of 72,000 people. 

Early last year, the British government sought to address the same problem, which Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life,” by appointing a minister for loneliness. But Britain’s stretched health services say that community-led initiatives, such as multigenerational co-living spaces, are more promising, given the scale of the challenge. 

New Zealand’s coffin clubs represent another hopeful example of that approach.

Besides providing elderly people with companionship, the clubs also offer comfort and support to parents dealing with a stillbirth or the death of an infant.

The Hastings club is particularly committed to this work, with many members volunteering their time to make miniature coffins, complete with teddy bears and a pillow or blanket. The local hospitals’ midwives and nurses have asked the club “not ever to stop making our little baby coffins,” said Helen Bromley, 72, another member.

The sober process happens in a separate room, removed from the lighthearted production of the adult equivalents. 

Outside the club building, Aitken said she was almost done for the day with work on her husband’s coffin. Hers was already finished, she said. On it she had painted a panoramic view of a fictional city that includes landmarks from places she has visited, including Big Ben in London, the Colosseum in Rome and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

She’d left a “little gap,” though, Aitken said with a smile, because who knows what might still happen?