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Thursday, July 18, 2024
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FeaturesPast, Present & Future: Sophia Campbell

Past, Present & Future: Sophia Campbell

In this month’s audio interview with Seth Dellow, Sophia Campbell cites her mother’s influence as one of the reasons she has such a keen affinity with nature and the environment that surrounds her. She remembers that influence as a ‘beautiful foundation for my life experience and my childhood.’ One particular memory she shares is being late for school ‘because mum was pointing out all the raindrops on the top of the car and how they made this beautiful pattern.’ She describes her mother as a ‘general instigator of projects’ and the influence saw Sophia develop a natural flair for creativity. At the same time, being brought up in the countryside, ‘having adventures, and doing silly brave things’ also gave her the confidence to do things that were ‘different and a little bit scary.’
Today, that creative and environmental upbringing, along with profound life experiences, has forged a path to becoming a willow coffin maker. She has been creating beautiful natural things from willow for more than ten years and has produced coffins for the last three—recently winning an award in the Best Businesswoman Awards.
However, that wasn’t the original career path that Sophia had envisaged. After studying geography at university she had planned to go into a research position for wellbeing and human health. But that changed with the death of her mother. She had to process losing, what she explained to Seth, was her best friend, mentor, and mother, all in one person. She describes her mother’s death as a ‘foundational experience’ explaining, ‘my mum died in such in an amazingly integrated way, such a beautiful way, with community surrounding her. And she was just talking about her experience the whole time of dying. And it was just, you know, one of the best deaths, I think, that could happen.’
Afterward, Sophia traveled to Spain where she took long walks and eventually decided to study organic horticulture. She ‘focused on environmentalism but from a kind of structural change, helping create more ecologically produced tasty organic food.’
But two life-changing events followed, which, as she put it, ‘threw my life up in the air’. Just after giving birth to her daughter, her sister died suddenly and tragically. It was an enormous shock.
Sophia had been using her work with willow as a kind of bereavement therapy after her mum’s death, but having experienced something she described as ‘beautiful and supportive and not fearful and traumatic’ followed by something that was tragic and shocking—not long after bringing new life into the world—she decided she wanted to work with death and the funeral sector. She sees it as having ‘such a powerful tinge to it’ and creating support for family and friends.
She did a short apprenticeship to be a coffin maker and says her passion for sustainability as well as ecological practices are very prominent within what she’s doing now, especially in terms of working with sustainably produced British willow as well as local materials. She donates a portion of her profits to the Woodland Trust and says she is ‘the only willow coffin maker in the UK to give money to charity from my profits.’
Sophia says that represents, and highlights, her integration of ‘death within life’. She points out that ‘you can’t have one without the other.’ From her perspective, with the right support, the right information and the right process, death is not something to fear. ‘And you can’t have life without death.’ She is also very keen on natural burial grounds which she describes as ‘spaces of biodiversity and beauty and wildflower meadows where death is the core of that.’ She hopes to set up a natural burial ground in the future.
Apart from the commercial element of weaving coffins, Sophia often experiences a relationship with clients on a level way beyond that experienced by most coffin makers. People often share memories of the lives of their loved ones. Sophia says ‘I really love it when families share with me, as they often do when they’re placing an order.’ There are also times when people come and help weave the coffin themselves. ‘They share a bit about the person who has died, some memories, or sometimes songs they like. Or, you know, sometimes they’ll send me a photo. And so I have a little bit of an idea about the person, and I can have them in my eye when I’m weaving such a special object—you know, someone’s last resting place. It represents them physically in the funeral. It’s a really personal service to offer people.’
The weaving is a meditative activity: repeated motions and the touch of natural products offer calmness, tranquility, and time to process. It’s not something many people prepare for or expect to encounter. When families come and weave part of the lid with her they might share a cup of tea, and if they’re not so physically able they might just weave for an hour or so. ‘Or people come and weave the full coffin with me for three and a half days’ says Sophia ‘which is a really intense experience and a beautiful one.’ As well as being quite physically arduous it can also be quite emotionally taxing. She says ‘the slow fabrication of a coffin, for someone that they so dearly love, is not something … it’s not an everyday experience.’
In her audio interview, Sophia also talks about the changes in our attitudes to death and the conversations that have become somehow taboo. She explains how before the Victorian era, death and funerals were very much home-based events. Bodies were prepared at home and it was all very family-oriented. ‘For good reason, in some senses, the creation of funeral parlours in the Victorian era meant that it was a slightly moved experience’ she says. She understands that for many that made it easier emotionally. People didn’t have to deal with the practicalities of their loved one’s passing. However, she thinks that it is important ‘to be involved as much as it’s emotionally possible for the person in their bereavement.’
Whilst she sees many emotional and personal changes in the way funerals and death are experienced today, she is also looking at ways to ease the financial burden for those that would like a more environmentally sustainable experience. She is developing the first flatpack willow coffin which enables families to preorder and store their coffin easily. It also enables one end of the coffin to fold down which, with a cardboard coffin liner, gives it the potential to be reused.
But she thinks it’s especially the attitudes to death that are changing, albeit slowly. She mentions the death cafes, and festivals, around death, dying, and grieving. ‘There’s a lot that we can learn from other cultures like in Mexico, the Day of the Dead’ she says. ‘In China, they have a big festival around ancestors and around grief at the same time of year as Day of the Dead. I definitely feel like there is a convergent groundswell of people being more interested in sustainability in the funeral industry, and, well, maybe it’s more of a hope that I will see in my lifetime, governments stepping in to create more green legislation for the funeral industry to gear it to go in the direction around a low carbon footprint that we so desperately need. And I do feel like those things will converge. It’s a very interesting time to be a coffin maker.’ For more information or to contact Sophia visit www.wovenfarewell.co.uk.

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