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Messengers of death: How coffin-makers laugh to the bank in jettisoned trade

coffin makers
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This is a story about how coffin makers thrive, despite being discriminated against and stereotyped as purveyors of death because of their trade

For some weird reasons, a first-time walk to Mr Olasubomi Ade’s workshop left an oddly bland taste beyond the taste buds. It might be the dryness of the air that led to his Agege, Lagos home, as houses stood right in front of other houses without recourse to physical planning. There was also the graveyard silence that wrapped the atmosphere as wooden coffins lined up right outside his kiosk.

Ade, 59, said he had been a furniture maker for most of his life, adding that making coffins was a forte he took a liking for because, for him, it was special.

“The way it is designed and how the woods come together to make beautiful pieces is one thing I love about my work.

“I make other furniture pieces but seeing a finished coffin leave my workshop for a funeral home fills me with instant peace,” the soft-spoken man said, as he showed our correspondent inside his crowded shop.

His voice pierced through the screeching sound of the wood sandpaper as his apprentices worked on several other fresh pieces.

After a deep breath, this reporter stepped into the shop, which seemed too small to accommodate the many coffins housed there.

Different designs, different concepts and different sizes.

In 1996, Ade said he decided to diversify into making coffins, as the trade was not as popular as it is now.

“We had very few woodworkers who were doing it. I was not even in Lagos fully then. I was shuttling between Lagos and Osun State because of some engagements I had there (Osun),” he said, caressing an unfinished coffin with his eyes half-closed.

He told one of his apprentices to smoothen the piece and made a joke about making sure the dead were comfortable when they ‘journey into the land beyond this realm.’

Ade noted that I was lucky to see him as he seldom came to his Lagos workshop because of age.

In March 1996, Ade said he lost one of his close relatives and needed a coffin for burial but could not get one that was ‘befitting’ for the deceased.

Being a woodworker himself, he decided to craft something with the help of his old boss, who taught him carpentry.

According to him, that was the beginning of his love for the art of making coffins.

On the day of the funeral of his deceased relative, Ade said everyone kept commenting on the finesse of the coffin, adding that he knew he had ‘talent for this kind of work’.

‘My wife thought I was mad’

Ade said when he sought the opinion of his wife on the craft, she told him ‘that kind of business is for bad people’, noting that she would not be a part of it.

After much pleading, which included involving the extended family, she accepted on the condition that the workshop would be far from other furniture.

“My wife thought I had gone mad. You know how people look at us because of this business, as though we are purveyors of death. We all will die one day and enter a coffin if our religion permits, so there is no need for all the cynicism about the trade,” he added, standing up almost abruptly to clear out a cobweb right above where he sat.

Right behind his workshop was a woman who made amala and ewedu.

The woman, who identified herself as Iya Amala, said she had no problem sharing the space with Ade, adding that they had been friends for years.

“I don’t sell my food here. I only cook here and take it to my shops down the road. Everyone knows me in the area because my amala is very tasty and neatly prepared,” she briskly said.

‘Son died on way to deliver coffin in Osun’

Ade said an unforgettable experience for him was when his youngest son died when he accompanied a driver to deliver a coffin in an area in Osun State.

According to him, the car brake failed and the son was the only one who died.

“People said a lot of things. I had three sons and he was the one who was really interested in the business.

“I had lost my wife years earlier. This business and my two boys are all I live for,” he added.

Another coffin maker

For another coffin maker, Bankole Esan, who started the business almost 10 years ago, sales have not been too favourable because of the economic condition.

Speaking on the telephone with our correspondent, the Ekiti State-based casket maker said he had had better days.

Recounting how he started the business, Esan said he had always been a lover of furniture making and decided to join the trade when he finished secondary school.

He was in Lagos then and worked in one of the funeral homes on the mainland as a driver.

He said he began to develop interest, learnt the trade and became a professional.

When he moved to Ado-Ekiti, Esan said he decided to set up a funeral home, Banky Funeral Homes.

Mother said no

Esan said when he told his mother he wanted to go into the making and sales of caskets, his mother protested, saying it was not a “healthy business for a man like me”.

“It was a serious battle. I had to make her understand that it was just work for me. But, it was not as easy as I am saying it now,” he added.

He also stated that the way society treated him was unfair, adding that some persons saw him as one who “stored dead people” in his home.

“It is just a wooden box that all of us will enter into someday. There is nothing mysterious about coffins. I think it is just the notion over the years that it may symbolise something bad,” he noted.

Coffin Street

Our reporter visited the popular Odunlami Street, Lagos, also known as Coffin Street, for the obvious constellation of coffin makers and sellers.

The street has a deep-seated history as one of the early beginnings of casket making in Lagos, as it was the place where the late Pa Theophilus Okusanya, a carpenter and coffin maker, began his funeral empire.

According to LTJ Funeral International, one of the many offshoots of his company, Okusanya started the Magbamowo Industrial Company on the street in 1946.

Known for his skill in making pews and church furniture, the LTJ website stated that Okusanya began making coffins on request and became very successful and popular at it.

“A benevolent, humorous and charming gentleman, Pa Okusanya took many apprentices under his wings and trained them to become independent coffin makers in the area and across Nigeria.

“He was affectionately called ‘Master’ or ‘Master Carpenter’ […],” the resource added.

It is 77 years since Okusanya started this trade on this street, and the area, as our correspondent walked through it, looked like trade just started like a world filled with mummies.

On number 18 sat St. John Casket. A quick look from across the street gives a sombre feel, and as our correspondent crossed, one of the salesmen of the company beckoned.

“Oga, we have it here. What are you looking for? Sorry about your loss. We will give you the best experience,” he quietly said.

The marketing seemed awkward, even for him, as he quietly fell back into his seat when our reporter walked into his shop.

The price ranged from as high as N150,000 to as much as N20m. In fact, one of the salesmen, who did not want to be named, said there were more expensive ones. He called them ‘premium wares’.

Speaking of his experience doing the line of work, the salesman said even his roommate did not know what work he did, which was why he declined to give his name.

“You know the way people behave. I don’t want someone to say I want to kill him so I can sell my coffin to him. The coffins here are not for the living; they are for the dead,” he stressed.

He also noted that there were not only wooden caskets.

“We have metal ones, too, which are imported from China, Malaysia and America. The minimum price for those ones now will be more than N2m, depending on the grade of the metal used,” he added.

On number 22 was Easy Way Casket and the line went on and on almost unending.

Another Lagos Island-based operator, Mr Erukubami Magnus, inherited the business from his late elder brother.

On average, he claims to rake in millions annually. For him, he has no target customers, anybody can come and buy from him.

“I have for the rich and the poor as well. I also do home delivery service,” he quipped.

Narrating a rough experience he had with a customer, Magnus said, “The day I tried to give someone my card, I got the insult of my life and ever since then, I stopped it.”

Casket making

Two researchers from the Department of Forestry and Wildlife Management, University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Adedapo Aiyeloja and Gabriel Adedeji in a 2018 study on the socio-economy of producing wooden caskets in Rivers State, stated that the sector was ‘great but silent’.

Casket and coffin are often used interchangeably to mean a container where human remains (corpse) are placed for burial.

While ‘coffin’ is exclusively used for such purpose, Funeral Vocabulary, an online resource, stated that ‘casket’, in addition to this usage comes in different shapes and sizes for other uses such as a little container to keep pieces of jewellery and precious gems.

For a business that has existed for decades, there seems to be little literature about the economy and worth of the industry in Nigeria.

This may not be unconnected with the sanctity associated with the usage of the product.

In some places, people look at coffin furniture-makers with disdain.

To such people, it is not a good enterprise because it flourishes at the expense of human lives.

According to Aiyeloja and Adedeji, people feel when coffin makers pray to sell their products, they are indirectly praying for more people to die.

“This has, doubtlessly, compelled the coffin makers to maintain a quiet disposition in the marketing and sales of their products.

“They hardly run promos or advertise their products on media. Parents and guardians hardly allow their children and wards to learn this specialised furniture making, posing a threat to the very existence and continuity of the enterprise,” they said.

However, for them, the death of any human being has nothing to do with whether coffins are made or not.

After all, people still die in the northern part of Nigeria where the Islamic religion forbids the use of coffins.

Islam and coffin

In Islam, according to scholars, the use of coffins is not entrenched in the Quran, therefore Muslims are buried without coffins when they die.

An Islamic scholar and historian, Mr Abdulhakeem Olawunmi, in an interview, said the use of coffins for burial is not permissible.

He said, “When one dies as a Muslim, the best is to dig a grave, perform ghusl (ablution or purification bath on the deceased) and lay it to mother earth.”

Shedding more light on the issue, another Islamic scholar and professor, Mahfouz Adedimeji, stated that “there may be an instance where using the coffin may be allowed” for a Muslim burial.

“For instance, the soil may be extremely soft leading to the constant collapse of the grave or the burial site is wet or muddy. In such scenarios, using coffins is allowed,” he added.

He, however, noted that Muslims could engage in the business because “it isn’t the wood or the coffin that is forbidden but using it to bury Muslims that is not allowed”.

Christians, on the other hand, use coffins in burying their loved ones, though scholars have said there is no biblical injunction for or against the usage.

Thriving business

Aiyeloja and Adedeji noted though not an ‘orchestrated enterprise’, coffin makers have been thriving in their businesses going by the limited number of people involved in the enterprise as compared with the number of people passing on to the great beyond daily.

“A television station, for instance, dedicated one hour for paid advertorial where scores of obituaries were announced on a daily basis. Yet, the enterprise has been excluded from virtually all the works available in wood furniture enterprise in the region,” they stated.

Their study revealed that wooden casket production was profitable in the study area “with a high mean annual profit margin of N3,960,192; N5,099,264; N4,671,120; N10,374,720 in four consecutive years”.

Price has a wide range of between N50,000 or slightly less to several thousands of naira.

Sales of over N1m per casket had also been recorded.

According to them, if efforts are made to demystify wooden casket production among the youth, it will lead to self-reliance, reduce negative thinking and create more chances for youths who are willing to engage in the business, so as to eradicate unemployment.

In casket making, our correspondent learnt, there is a division of labour.

The local carpenters make the boxes and shift them to the funeral homes, which in turn design to suit the taste of customers. They put lining, pillow and painting and there is the distribution and sales.

Women in the trade

A middle-aged woman from Osumenyi, Nnewi South council area of Anambra State, Jovita Oraneli, broke the Internet when she said she sold coffins.

She said she got into the trade in 2014, adding that she would love to do the business till old age.

Oraneli, who learnt the trade from her brother after she finished her national youth service in 2014, said it was the best decision she ever made.

Speaking on how she coped in the sector as a lady, she said, “There is nothing like a man’s work. Work is work. Any legal business is for everybody and I chose casket-making and funeral services.

“I have never really been a fan of doing what so many people are into. This was why I went into this business.

“When you see the way I am dressed for an event, you will know that I am ready for business and it is not about my sex.

“In fact, all my staff, including the undertakers, are men,” she stated.

Apart from coffin-making, she also drove ambulances.

She said, “If you see where I display with my ambulances during funerals, you will know that I am a professional.”

On the superstition in the trade, Oraneli said she had no business with black magic or the like.

“People always think we do juju but they are all lies. We don’t pray for the death of anyone. The people who need our services are the dead and we do just that.

“Instead of the corpse just being in the mortuary without any covering, we make a coffin for it so it can be easy to be buried. It is that simple.

“I will train my children in this trade, and I encourage other women to come and join me.”

She noted that as of 2014, when she started, she was making as much as N700,000 per month because ‘people always die and they need coffins for burial’.

She told BBC Pidgin, “Coffin get type by type so wen you come my shop you go buy di one wey your money reach. Na cash and carry. No be business wey pesin go come collect goods come tell you im go pay next week.We no dey for dat one.”

‘People say I’ll kill my husband’

Jovita added that because of her job, some of her in-laws told her that she would be the death of her husband, adding that it had to take some time before her in-laws came to terms with the work.

“Dem tell my husband say na me go kill am. My in-laws ask my husband wia e see me. Dem say why e no see ‘normal’ woman wey dey do normal business, e come go bring pesin wey dey sell casket.

“Na as I spend time with dem dem realise say wetin I dey do dey genuine. No be me kill di pipo wey dey die. Wetin I dey do na to sell casket and go my way,” she said.

Another woman in the trade is 45-year-old Mrs Ifeoma Ofornagorom from Ezinifite, Aguata Local Government Area, Anambra State, popularly called Nwayi Akpati Ozu (woman who makes caskets).

She is one of the people whose fortune changed after venturing into the casket business.

The mother of five, who sold sachet water at the Upper Iweka Market, is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Divine Favour Funeral Services based in Onitsha, Anambra State.

Speaking with our correspondent on how she started the business, she said, “The casket business is unique. When you finish making the casket, you stay and wait. You don’t beg for people’s patronage. They only come to you when they need your product. I only pray to God in heaven for my daily bread.

It is not every day you will sell a casket but it’s a must that you sell because people are many in the mortuary.”

According to her, business usually booms on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays when people buy caskets for the weekend.

‘It’s hypocritical stigmatising coffin makers’

A research associate at the College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University, Flint Michigan, USA, Dr Johnbosco Chukwuorji, in an interview with our correspondent, noted that it was hypocritical to stigmatise coffin makers or isolate them in social circles.

Chukwuorji, who is also a senior lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State, said coffin makers served a need for the society.

He said, “In other climes where they do cremation or other forms of alternative funeral rites, coffin makers cannot be found. The people who stigmatise coffin makers in our culture will still go to them when they are bereaved in order to buy the best coffins they can afford for the burial of their loved ones.

“The coffin makers are doing their job and they should be seen as other occupational groups.

“Since death is a reality and most parts of Africa require the burial of adults with coffins, how will people cope if there are no coffin makers? Will deaths cease to occur if we don’t have coffin makers? In Islam, corpses are not buried in coffins, but Muslims still die.

“The same people that have this attitudinal problem will go to funeral ceremonies to eat and drink to their satisfaction.”

He further stressed that more open discussions about death should be encouraged to change the negative attitudes toward death and dying.

“Most of us have not realised the inevitability of death. It’s a reality that as long as there is life, there’s going to be death.

“The developed countries that recorded many COVID-19-related deaths may think differently about the reality of death compared to those in other parts that witnessed less mortality from COVID-19.

“The experience of deaths due to COVID-19 has made many people in those societies begin to live well. People are afraid of death when they do not live well.

“The person who lives well has already prepared for death because there are physical, social and spiritual dimensions of dying. If one takes care of one’s health, he is at peace with his neighbour and has hope that death is a transition or transformation, he has lived well,” he added.

Another senior psychologist based in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Mr Usen Essien, noted that humans were naturally wired to seek survival and avoid death.

This instinctive fear of death, he stressed, was rooted in human biology and had helped ensure the survival of the human species over time.

Essien stated that many cultures and religions placed significant value on the afterlife or on the idea of an eternal soul, which further intensified the fear of death.

“The fear of death is a complex psychological issue that has been studied extensively by psychologists and other researchers.

“It is a universal human experience and can be caused by a variety of factors, including personal experiences, cultural beliefs, and individual temperament.

“However, despite this fear, many people also have a tendency to avoid thinking about death or planning their own funeral arrangements.

“This may be due to a number of psychological factors, including denial, avoidance, and the belief that death is a distant event that won’t happen anytime soon,” he stated.

Denial, according to him, is a common psychological defence mechanism used by many people when faced with the prospect of their own mortality.

He noted that by denying the reality of death, individuals could avoid the unpleasant emotions associated with it and continue living their lives without any form of threat.

“Avoidance is another common coping mechanism that individuals may use to deal with their fear of death. Rather than confronting the issue directly, they may avoid thinking about it altogether or engage in distractions such as work, hobbies, or social activities. Individual differences in personality traits and coping styles can also influence the fear of death,” he added.

Essien, further speaking on the topic, noted that cultural and religious beliefs could also play a significant role in shaping an individual’s fear of death.

He said, “For example, many religions offer beliefs and rituals that provide a sense of comfort and continuity beyond death, while other cultures view death as a natural part of the cycle of life and celebrate it through traditions and rituals.”

For him, the idea of viewing coffin makers as abstract beings who are not meant to be among the living may be rooted in cultural or religious beliefs about death and the afterlife.

“The act of making coffins or preparing bodies for burial may be seen as a ritualised process that is best left to specialists who have the knowledge and expertise to handle bodies with care and respect.

“In this sense, coffin makers or funeral directors may be seen as intermediaries between the living and the dead, tasked with ensuring that the body is prepared for its final journey,” he added.

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