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A museum in Birmingham that's dedicated to coffins and death is looking to expand its team by hiring new tour guides.
Founded in 1894, Coffin Works in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter was created when the owners realised that it was more lucrative to be in coffins than in cabinets.
Before working on coffins, the Newman brothers were focused on cabinet fittings. But later they became known for their coffin business, even supplying furniture and brassware, such as handles, plates and shrouds for the coffins of kings, queens and prime ministers, including George V, Queen Mary, Princess Diana and the Queen Mother.
The museum is regarded as one of the most macabre museums in the country. However, the team insists that visiting the museum and studying its artefacts is a healthy way of talking and learning about death.
“The reason this company was so important is because they were classed the Rolls Royce of coffin fittings, and supplied the royal undertakers for most of the 20th centuries,” says Sarah Hayes, manager of Coffin Works.
“As a Brummie who loves old buildings, it’s my dream job. People might think it’s weird, but this is a place that tells the story of an important city trade, as well as the stories of the people who used to work here, like the late Joyce Green, the last owner, who dedicated her life to the company, and fought a campaign to preserve the building and turn it into a museum.”
What appealed most to Hayes is the Mary Celeste quality. By the late 90s, the company was being wound down, and one afternoon Green and the team finally decided to down tools and close the doors. The result is a beautifully restored time capsule preserved by the Birmingham Conservation Trust.
“It’s like the staff have gone out one afternoon, and haven’t come back. It’s not morbid in the slightest. You can smell the wood, metal, and history. In some of the rooms, it’s like stepping back into the Victorian period, in others, it’s like a scene from Peaky Blinders, and then some are very much stuck in the sixties,” says Hayes.
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The building opened as a museum in 2014 and initially was very much about the city’s industrial and social history, “but as the public started to visit, they began asking us questions about death, which we weren’t really prepared for, so we’ve actually geared our tours to what the public wants,” adds Hayes, and reveals that as part of their research, she and her team of volunteers have toured a crematorium.
Although there are only two coffins on display, which some visitors are disappointed about, the museum’s contents provide a fascinating insight into our changing attitudes towards death.
“When Newman Brothers started out, the fittings were quite bling really, shiny, expensive and showy and that was the point, not because Victorians were obsessed with death but because they were obsessed with social etiquette and death was part of that, like a christening was,” explains Hayes.
That all changed with the two world wars when things became simpler, and more practical.
“People weren’t as willing to talk about death as the Victorians were, when it was more about planning and saying goodbye and having last rites. Plastic coffin fittings also started to become fashionable after World War Two when there was a move from burial to cremation, which contributed to the downfall of a company like Newman Brothers.”
A museum about coffin fittings might seem niche, but as Hayes highlights, “we’ve all got this morbid curiosity”.
“Many people want to talk about death and ask those questions they might feel awkward asking at home, like how hot does the cremator get, and how does embalming work? Here, it’s perfectly legitimate to explore death.”
In the early days of the museum, they used to run death cafes where people would turn up, have cake, and talk about loss, or what happens when you die in a safe environment, and they were always a sell-out.
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The last one was in 2016 but they’ve since hosted Dispelling the Myths events whereby local funeral directors stop by to give an informal presentation, and answer any questions people have.
“It’s important to have these conversations. Just because you talk about death doesn’t mean it’s going to happen imminently,” says Hayes who reveals her own relationship with death has improved. “Maybe this doesn’t come as a surprise, but I’m not scared of talking about it anymore.”
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Coffin Works is currently open three days a week, from Friday to Sunday, with one guided tour a day at 11am, as well as an opportunity to do self-guided tours.
“We’re hoping to expand the days and tours, but need to build our team of volunteers, and we’re actually on the
lookout for new recruits,” says Hayes. “If you want to give it a go then we’re always more than willing to welcome people. Drop me a line at [email protected] to find out more.”
- Princess Diana
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