07/17/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
AFTER ATTENDING THE FUNERALS of several friends in 1990, Lisette de Roche had an insight about death. "It's so dull," says the 35-year-old London decorative artist. "People go to so much trouble with flowers and ceremony and poetry—and then they have this hideous old box."
To help the dearly departed depart in style, de Roche began painting colorful designer coffins and peddling them, mainly through a catalog for undertakers. She did a dozen of them last year in her studio, but now she's selling that many each month and has to hire assistants when the grim reaper gets especially busy. Many of her orders, says de Roche, a self-trained artist whose trompe l'oeil, marbling and faux wood-graining adorn the homes of Britain's well-to-do, come from healthy, pragmatic women with an eye to the future. "If you go to the trouble of making a will, why not put in the details of your coffin?" she says.
The most popular of de Roche's off-the-rack styles, which cost an average $1,500—twice the cost of a plain coffin—is the elegant Robert Adam model (named for the Victorian architect) in black and gold with a brass nameplate. Then there's the Chinese dragon and phoenix, in turquoise with red and yellow ornamentation. And for a real to-die-for look, there's the flashy Robert Maxwell, trimmed with gold, silver and mother-of-pearl and named for the late press baron. De Roche has also started painting personalized coffins, with themes ranging from doves and peace symbols to musical notations.
Now that people have caught on to her coffins, de Roche (whose architect husband, Steve Anderson, 47, is American) is eyeing the U.S. market. "I'm not trying to be weird or make money out of death," she says gravely. "I just want to create something good-looking."