How to decorate a cardboard coffin

Painting and decorating a cardboard coffin


Painting and decorating a cardboard coffin is pretty straight forward and a fantastic way to pay tribute to the person that has died. We feel that actively participating in creating your person’s funeral is really important and fulfilling. The doing/creating/making is just as important as the end result. In my twenty two years in funerals I’ve seen some wonderful creations. And also born witness to the amazing gatherings to create them. I hope that this guide will give you some inspiration and confidence to decorate a cardboard coffin.


Buying a coffin

You can ask your funeral director to purchase a cardboard coffin for you or buy one yourself online. They usually come in white or manila colours but you can also get a coloured cardboard coffin specially made, though they cost more. Ask for one with an extra solid base as that will be more practical for the hearse deck roller system and crematorium. Make sure that it has all linings needed; a waterproof and a cosmetic cotton liner. If a cardboard coffin isn’t considered a practical option then maybe your funeral director can order a traditional veneer coffin that has been primed ready to decorate.

If you want to carry the coffin at hip height (rather than on shoulders) make sure that it has load-bearing handles.


Using paints

Spray paint and acrylic paint and emulsion paint are fine for a coffin that is going to be cremated. Some woodland burial grounds are much stricter and will only want biodegradable materials to be used. If you feel unsure you can ask the cemetery or crematorium for a list of materials not to use. When painting a cardboard coffin it’s best not to load up the cardboard with lots of wet emulsion so that it’s saturated. Instead do thin layers and let them dry between coats. Alternatively use spray paint.

Here we see a coffin painted free hand by artist Sophie Tyrell for her grandma.


Sticking things on to the coffin

Sticking pictures on to the coffin can be a great way of covering a large area quickly. Here’s an image of a wonderful coffin covered in architectural drawings. Photos, children’s paintings, natural fabrics, postcards, prints of art work, magazine or newspaper pages, music scores, there are so may things that you could choose to make the coffin truly unique.

Spray mount glue is great as it doesn’t make paper wrinkle and it’s easy to position images. But it’s expensive and only really sold in art and photography shops and online. Other standard spray glue is ok and cheaper.  Copydex, Pritstick or PVA are OK but have more potential for wrinkles. Items to stick on can be made from cardboard or paper or something natural like dried leaves or flowers.

Maybe you’d like some 3D items? I’ve seen 3D cardboard butterflies that looked great. My friend made some beautiful newspaper flowers for another friend’s coffin. I’d like to make a coffin with little cardboard houses on one day. If you are adding 3D additions make sure that they don’t add more than 6 inch to the height of the coffin otherwise it may not fit in to the hearse. If you’re adding 3D bits to the sides keep them to the top half of the sides and end as the hearse bier pin will touch the coffin lower down to keep it from slipping around.

Crematoriums are strict about what shouldn’t be cremated the general rule is that nothing  should be included that can’t easily be reduced by cremation and not cause excessive smoke or fumes or melt. So do not include: anything with a battery, ceramic, glass, polystyrene, pvc, rubber, man made fabric, metal (apart from soft metal like silver and gold). If you feel unsure about adding something that is important to you check with the crematorium.

If you’re adding lots of smaller items maybe spray the coffin one colour first as the base colour so that you don’t end up with too much white or brown of the coffin showing.


Every crematorium and most cemeteries will require a nameplate on the coffin. This can be painted into the design or you could make something A5 or A4 size and stick it on. It goes on top at the head end. It must be big enough for the crematorium attendant or cemetery staff to read it on arrival. It should have your relatives full legal name and a second piece of information like birthdate to death date or death date and age.  If someone was known day to day by a different name it can go in inverted comas above the legal name.


Thinking about design

Sometimes a coffin might be completely covered in a design. Other times spaces might be left for messages to be added during the service/celebration.

A lot of the point of decorating a coffin is the actual doing, creating and having some time sharing memories with others as you do it. But also it’s worth considering when designing which parts will be seen most during the funeral.  For example if a coffin is going to be shoulder carried in to a crematorium and put on the catafalque the lid might not be seen a great deal. Also there may be flowers on top which would obscure the art work.  But the horizontal head end will probably be seen for the full length of the service (note; there are a very small number of crematoriums in the UK where the catafalque is placed differently so the coffin will mainly be seen from the side throughout the service). If the coffin goes on trestles in a church or secular venue it will be lower and you’ll see more of the top and it may be positioned where you’ll see more of the sides.


Who decorates the coffin

You could have the coffin delivered to your house and decorate it there. Alternatively you might want to plan an event where lots of people contribute and at the same time share memories of your special person. People from a distance could post or email a contribution to you.


Good luck painting the coffin. You will have a truly unique coffin. I would love to see some photos.