The stinky coffin battle

The stinky coffin battle

MASERU-FOR families losing their loved ones to Covid-19, it’s a double tragedy. Apart from mourning, they have to scrounge around for money to buy coffins and meet funeral expenses all at a time the economy has nosedived due to the pandemic.
For local coffin makers, the increase in Covid-19 related deaths should have come as a boon. Yet, many say they are struggling due to what they say is a scheme by some funeral palours to ensure that bereaving families buy imported coffins.

Nthabiseng Sello received a call from Queen ’Mamohato Memorial Hospital early in the morning breaking the sad news of the death of her mother.
After wiping her tears, Sello woke her uncle and together they took the long trip from Thaba-Tseka to Maseru to collect the body.
Sello says the family did not have funds to buy a coffin, let alone pay for the traditional funeral ceremony.
“One of my uncles is a carpenter and had offered to make a coffin for us but we had to stop him after we were made to buy the coffin sold by the mortuary,” Sello said.

“We were plainly told that the prices for keeping the body would increase if we did not buy the coffin from them,” she said.
While funeral parlours make it in the coffin industry, business for local coffin makers has gone south, not because demand has slowed but because funeral parlours have created a system that favours imported coffins.
This system has been jacked up by an unofficial policy by hospitals that requires bereaved families to take bodies of their loved ones to private mortuaries.

Once the body is at the private mortuary, the family is bound to buy a coffin from among a selection provided by the parlour or pay massive fees for mortuary services if they decide to get the casket elsewhere. The parlours charge low mortuary fees, sometimes as small as M10 a day, for people who opt to buy coffins from them.
The cheapest coffins range between M1 700 and M2 000.
Some families, especially poor ones, are left with no option but to buy from the funeral parlours even if they could assemble the coffin themselves or buy cheaper locally made ones.

The funeral parlours stock coffins from South Africa where they are produced in large quantities and sold at low prices to the local parlours.
This has seen many funeral parlours turning coffin making into a core business in direct competition with local coffin manufacturers.
Tšeliso Mafatla, a well-known local coffin maker, told thepost that just six years ago his business was booming but after the ushering in of the policy not to keep dead bodies at hospital mortuaries for long his shop went under.

Mafatla, who has been in this industry for more than 15 years, said the business “has not only gone bad but it has totally collapsed”.
He said every carpenter who is well equipped with the skills of working with wood can make a coffin since it is the easiest product to make.
“It is not even time consuming as I used to spend less than two hours to complete it,’’ he said.
He added that it is possible to make more coffins in a day, boosting profits.
Mafatla said the practice by funeral parlours is driving people like him out of business.
He said in a normal month he would manufacture and sell more than 10 coffins.

Mafatla said they would sell each coffin for between M800 to M2 500 for adults depending on the quality and size while those for children ranged from M400 to M800.
However, due to competition from funeral parlours, some are now making items such as tables instead of coffins, he said.
“Some are no longer manufacturing even one coffin because people are being forced to buy from funeral parlours,” said Mafatla, whose workshop is less than two kilometres from the now defunct Queen Elizabeth II Hospital. He said families used to collect coffins from his site before proceeding to the hospital mortuary to collect bodies.
“During those years it was allowed for families to keep bodies in the hospital morgue for weeks, sometimes months, until they raised money for a funeral,” said Mafatla.

Nowadays hospitals countrywide, irrespective of whether they are owned by the government, churches or by private individuals are demanding that relatives quickly take bodies to private mortuaries.
Mafatla said before Covid-19, coffin makers used to get customers from rural areas where some people did not take their corpses to mortuaries.
“But now the mortuaries are everywhere and the fees are affordable,” he said.

“There is no business at all,’’ said Mafatla.
Ramakhula Ramakhula, who has been in the carpentry business from 2006, said they used to make and sell coffins to people who were using the Queen II mortuary.
“Ever since the Queen II mortuary collapsed, there has been no business at all,” Ramakhula said.
“We would not wait for customers to place orders because we knew that people are being buried each and every week,” he said, adding that he would make up to 10 coffins a day when business was at its peak.
“Right now, I do not even remember the last time I made a coffin. It was a long time ago. This has not only affected a certain group of people in the town of Maseru but every coffin business has been affected countrywide,” he said.

The owner of Lebza Coffin and Casket, ’Mannabi Ngoanamatsumi-Phakisi, said she registered the company around 2017 with the aim to sell coffins to uninsured people and those who wanted to bury their loved one quickly.
Phakisi said she was buying the coffins from Bloemfontein in South Africa.
However, she ran into losses until she decided to close the business in December 2019.
Phakisi said she tried to negotiate with customers “but nothing has worked out”.
She said she even approached mortuaries for partnerships but the negotiations also failed.

Phakisi said she then decided to study how to make coffins so that she could supply funeral parlours with quality products but the business could not generate enough profits to remain sustainable.
“I would sometimes go for six months without getting any customers. Business was really bad,” said Phakisi.
The Senior Manager of Sentebale Funeral Services, Nyeoe Leroma, said they source coffins from local suppliers.
He said the supplier should be legally operating and tax compliant.
Leroma however said they also buy from different suppliers internationally.

He said the decision on which supplier to contract is based on the quality and quantity required and the reliability of the supplier.
“For example, circumstances may at times force us to source large quantities,’’ Leroma said.
Leroma said they consider the type of material used, the quality of work itself, the designs, the painting and the finishing.

“Even a coffin should be good looking, something that does not break easily,’’ he said.
Leroma said they don’t have a problem working with local suppliers but there are challenges which hinder them from fully relying on local suppliers.
He mentioned legal issues, capacity problems and reliability as major challenges.

Refiloe Mpobole

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