MADE IN SHEFFIELD: Last coffin makers keep tradition alive

(l-r) Richard Bee, Colin Henser, Adam Lilleker, of John Heath & Sons. Picture: Andrew Roe.
(l-r) Richard Bee, Colin Henser, Adam Lilleker, of John Heath & Sons. Picture: Andrew Roe.

Most mourners won’t appreciate the finer details of a John Heath and Sons coffin.

But boss Adam Heath insists they would if they weren’t there.

Adam Heath, of John Heath & Sons, with a painting of founder John Heath.

Adam Heath, of John Heath & Sons, with a painting of founder John Heath.

Perfect joints, chamfering, cross cuts, tiny ‘steps’ and the all-important ‘splay’ – the walls lean out slightly so the lid is bigger than the base. Without that it would just look wrong, Adam states.

“The beautiful thing about our coffins is the splay, It’s hard to describe but aesthetically it looks much better.”

And every one is made to measure.

The firm, based on Earsham Street in Burngreave, is believed to be the last funeral director in Britain to make its own coffins. It has a woodworking shop where a team of five make boxes for bodies from rough slabs of oak and mahogany. And although only on show for a few hours, they use as much care and craftsmanship as they might on a piece of furniture used for years. The company also sells giant ‘Godfather’ style steel caskets from the US and coffins made from cardboard, wicker, bamboo, water hyacinth and banana leaf.

Adam Lilleker, of John Heath & Sons.

Adam Lilleker, of John Heath & Sons.

But Adam, who has 35 years of experience of funerals in rainy Sheffield has seen some get soggy and “bend a bit.”

“Coffins have to contain and protect a body temporarily above and below ground. Wooden ones have worked for centuries, they are rigid and they are dignified.”

He added: “Business is good, it’s the busiest we’ve been since the Spanish Flu in 1918. We can’t go out searching for it. But we are the oldest in Sheffield and the name recognition and recommendation is immense.”

Adam, aged 51, says funerals have changed hugely in his time. Now, everything is personalised.

Colin Henser uses a nail gun.

Colin Henser uses a nail gun.

“Twenty five years ago it would only take 10 minutes. With the music, people would say, ‘just play anything Mr Heath, you’re the expert’. Now they like to choose their own, there’s a huge variety.”

He scrolls through a playlist that includes Elvis, Verdi and Catherine Jenkins.

Similarly, there’s a choice of coffins in different shades of oak and mahogany, as well as those covered in cloth.

These days 75 per cent choose cremation and 25 per cent burial. It’s whatever family tradition recommends and how people feel, Adam says. The firm serves all religions and all have coffins, he adds. “We look after anyone. Sometimes there’s a mix of religions and sometimes people fall out a bit. We try to get it right.”

The premises on Earsham Street, Burngreave, date from the 1920s.

The premises on Earsham Street, Burngreave, date from the 1920s.

The workshop features traditional woodworking tools and compressed air nail guns.

Factory foreman Colin Henser, who has worked for the company for 34 years, says the guns have knocked four hours off a coffin build.

Their job can take up to two days, while polishing, lining and handles takes another half.

He adds: “We used to have peaks in winters. Now we are pretty much on it all the time.”

Joiner Richard Bee reveals how 11 cuts on the inside of the walls allow them to bend into the classic coffin shape, while colleague Adam Lilleker waxes lyrical about the pattern, colour, depth and grain of wood which make every one unique.

The firm was established in 1880. The frontage of today dates from 1927, while the site includes several chapels of rest, offices, flats, a yard and a chapel for funerals, often used by Burngreave locals.

Adam Heath in the coffin showroom.

Adam Heath in the coffin showroom.

Adam said: “People leave here saying, ‘that was much better than I thought it would be’.”

SEVEN GENERATIONS AT FUNERAL DIRECTOR SHOW A MEASURE OF SUCCESS

John Heath and Sons joined the Made in Sheffield club three years ago and it sometimes helps sell a coffin.

Boss Adam Heath, who runs the firm with brother Jason, said: “People like to see the logo and sometimes choose a coffin because of it.”

The company also wants to support Sheffield firms by being part of a city-wide organisation.

And it knows a thing or two about success. Founded in 1880, it is now on its seventh generation after Adam’s son James, aged 19, started in the business.

Adam said: “Staff tend to stay. It’s a peaceful place to work. It can get hectic at times, but it’s like a swan, steady on the surface.”

Adam Heath, of John Heath & Sons in the coffin showroom.

Adam Heath, of John Heath & Sons in the coffin showroom.

The joinery team in the coffin factory: (l-r) Richard Bee, Colin Henser, Adam Lilleker, of John Heath & Sons.

The joinery team in the coffin factory: (l-r) Richard Bee, Colin Henser, Adam Lilleker, of John Heath & Sons.

The joiner team in the coffin factory: (l-r) Richard Bee, Colin Henser, Adam Lilleker, of John Heath & Sons.

The joiner team in the coffin factory: (l-r) Richard Bee, Colin Henser, Adam Lilleker, of John Heath & Sons.