At Work Adventures in Coffin Making
“What leads a man to transact with death for his daily bread?”
We pass by houses with obituaries plastered to their fronts, tiled graves on the verandas. I am thinking about death when we arrive at the garage. We are headed for Osogbo, the town of my childhood. We take the back seat in a rickety bus, I take the window seat. Nimi asks if I know how to tell this story. “The coffin makers will lead the way,” I say.
A coffin maker is in my head. I remember him from when I lived with my grandfather as a child. At the start of a road that slopes down like a hill, past beer parlours, churches and houses, the old man worked, making coffins. I tell Nimi that I feel like I’m seated in an eighteen-passenger coffin. The laughter disappears from her mouth.
I remember being seated in my grandfather’s sitting room one night, several years ago. A girl I don’t remember now emerged in the doorway, leaned against the doorpost and said, “Mama is dead.” A strong breeze followed the announcement, as if to blow away lurking doubts. Grandpa’s house was a two-storey building down the road from the coffin maker. The ground floor was occupied by tenants, two rooms to a family, and a room to a great-grandma who, at 126, looked like her bones would litter the four flights of stairs if she ever thought to climb to the top where the rest of the large family lived.
Hence, it was in her lonely room which smelled of disinfectant and decay that we went to mourn great-grandma. The openings in her body were stuffed with cotton wool. An electric iron was placed on her belly to keep her from bloating and she was covered with an Ankara wrapper, head to toe. That night, while everyone wailed, I hummed.
About seven years later, my mother returned from work late one evening. Without undressing, she asked, “If I sleep this night and fail to wake in the morning, where will you go?”
The morning after, mother called her three sons to her bedroom and told us that my father’s other wife, my stepmother, had died during childbirth in the midnight. Perhaps because I had learnt to attribute the rift that cracked my family and caused my parents to separate to her, or because she used to be just another yellow face in the yellow two-storey house we used to live in; I didn’t know what to feel. But for not knowing what to feel, I felt guilt—and a chill on my skin.
These deaths, though, they left a scar. I grew up thinking I would die soon, and my obsession with death has translated into a curiosity with coffins. Nimi says she may open a coffin shop; I think I may become a coffin maker.
We meet Joseph at the coffin maker’s workshop. As I stare at the deep blue painting of a coffin on the light blue wall, at the business name, loosely translated, “GOD’S TIME IS THE BEST,” at the interior where a man just old enough to experience a midlife crisis works between three unfinished coffins, I wonder if the old coffin maker has died. Joseph says he is out.
I touch eyes with Nimi. There is uncertainty in her eyes too. I don’t know what to expect. What leads a man to transact with death for his daily bread? Joseph is a short, dark man with tribal marks that are almost unrecognisable because his face has acquired other marks. His shirt and trousers are old and dirty, the workshop a damp, cramped space littered with unfinished work—coffins and furniture. Joseph is a carpenter, too. He says coffins are furniture too. I wonder what he means. He was born a carpenter, a coffin maker. But aren’t we born many things?
“Would you rather be something else?” Nimi asks.
“No,” he says. He chisels his way through wood as he speaks.
Joseph wasn’t apprenticed to his father because he believes that familiarity stifles discipline. After his basic education, he committed himself to a master, becoming one of over ninety apprentices.
“Today, apprenticeship has lost its appeal,” he tells us. “Commercial transportation is the business of the youth.” Roosebam, another coffin maker, says the coffin is a means of transportation too.
Nimi thinks the coffin maker is a genius. I agree. I mean, how do you whip wood into a vehicle going home? The military had purchased a coffin from Joseph the previous week. They had wanted the coffin modelled after a car for a colleague’s body.
“In fact, the coffin had headlamps,” Joseph emphasizes. I want to ask if it had a rearview mirror too. If I were a corpse, I would want to look back on my life at times. I’m not, and rather than back on my life, I’m looking at Joseph. I see a man who is proud of his work. Joseph naps inside the coffins. I ask if he feels dead when he does. He says it again: “The coffin is furniture too.”
There are photographs plastered on a wall in the workshop. In one of the pictures, Joseph squats beside a lacquer brown coffin; his expression does not betray emotions. In another picture, he stands over it. Like I imagine God did after creation. And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. The craft requires skills, talent too. To design a coffin, the maker needs to study, innovate and dream. For Joseph, some coffin designs are divine.
“You can’t give what you don’t have. Your design is a function of your knowledge,” Roosebam says. Roosebam is not his real name; it is a corruption of his late wife’s: Roselyn Bamisaye. She died over ten years ago. Roselyn’s death turned her husband into a single father of five, then a maker of coffins.
Robert Bly: It’s alright if we open the coffin and climb in.
No, Bly. It’s not alright.
During introduction, Nimi tells Roosebam she is a student of Human Anatomy and, as if he has found kin, a fellow death worker, he opens up. He dabbled in coffin making as charity. A young Roselyn died, leaving her husband to organize a funeral. The burial frustrated him. To die young is to subject your lovers to suffering.
“I promised that I would establish a funeral parlour, to cater for the young dead, after my wife’s burial,” he says. His face betrays intenseness. Some recently fatherless kids had approached him the month before, asking for help to bury their late policeman father. They had wanted his cheapest coffin at a discount. Instead, he had sold one of his best at almost no cost. Coffin making must be empathetic.
“They say the coffin maker communicates with the dead. Sir, do you?” I ask.
He laughs. “Myths are created to create mystery,” he says.
Once, in my mother’s orthodox church, a priest cum coffin maker told a story. After buying a coffin, the family of the dead returned to say the corpse wouldn’t enter it. They wanted the priest cum coffin maker to speak with the corpse, to convince it to enter the coffin. The priest cum coffin maker asked to talk to the corpse alone. He realized the corpse was longer than the coffin. He broke its knee joints with a mallet. It fit perfectly.
An ambulance is parked before Roosebam’s coffin shop. Nimi asks if it is his. It is. Does he transport corpses? He does. She says: “They say some corpses don’t want to leave. You put them in a vehicle, en route the burial site, and they take control of it. Have you ever experienced this?”
“No. I mean, who doesn’t want to go home?” Home is the afterlife, by the ways. I think about how restless home is, how it is never stable. It is everywhere on a map, it is everywhere off it.
Going from wood to coffin is a four days’ journey, on average. The panel beater does the body filling, and the tailor sews the cushions. Roosebam opens a coffin. The inside is fluffy, an elaborate cushion system. I ask if the cushions are for the comfort of the corpse. “They are,” he says. The dead need comfort too.
The structures on display at Roosebam’s shop span from simple to complex. A particular coffin stands out: straight, shallow box, blue upholstery, no ornaments. He says it is especially for teenagers. Toddlers don’t deserve coffins.
Joseph thinks so too. “A toddler had died the day before,” he says. “The toddler had crawled into the road and gripped the back of a parked car for support. Oblivious of the toddler gripping his bumper, the driver had put the car in reverse, crushed him, killed him. There was no funeral. No coffin.” I would later realize that this incident had happened just across the corner from my mother’s house; the street would be paralyzed by mourning for a day. But, as if struck en masse by amnesia, suddenly, people would forget.
While a toddler was denied a coffin for daring to die young, an Ijebu man had approached a coffin maker with planks of Iroko wood. Joseph says different woods serve different purposes. Coffins of Iroko are used for rituals, mostly. He says the Iroko tree is home to several spirits. You could enslave these spirits and make them do your biddings. Ask them for blood money.
Charles de Leusse: The money opens many doors. That of the coffin, among other things. Sometimes, it’s the coffin that opens the money.
An obese woman arrives at Joseph’s workshop. She says she needs a stool. Joseph says stools are the domain of his younger sibling, who is out, but if the woman will check back by evening, he would have made her one. She will. The stool is meant to seat a mother while bathing her newborn. They haggle for a bit, Joseph and the woman.
“Do people default on coffins?” Nimi asks.
“Yes, they do.”
The obese woman laughs. “Really, people default on coffins?”
“The dying do not wait till you can afford a coffin before they die and the coffin maker has to sympathize with the dead. But a defaulter must pay his debt eventually,” Joseph explains. Nimi would later tell me that ghosts torment defaulters until they have settled their debts.
The woman nods. “The coffin maker needs to sympathize because one day he will come to need a coffin too. After all, it is called the final home.” She leaves. The same wood, the same tools that Joseph uses to make final homes, he will use to make a stool for a new mother.
Roosebam says he knew at first sight that we are not potential customers. “You are too young to be buying coffins.” I do not tell him that I have selected a product for myself from his merchandise.
A boy arrives at Roosebam’s workshop. He is his son, Emmanuel. The boy eats in the aisle between the coffins and prepares to leave for music school. He is a keyboardist. Roosebam likes music too—gospel and highlife. His favourite tune is a Yoruba thanksgiving song. He is singing now. I wonder if it’s his favourite because it is popular at gravesides. I wonder, too, if Emmanuel will grow into a coffin maker. Like Joseph.
We bid Roosebam goodbye.
Four roads meet at a point. On each road, close to the junction, is a coffin maker’s workshop. We check them out but we do not approach. We are tired. We keep walking. An SUV almost knocks us down. We don’t hurry out of its path. Instead, we stand in the middle of the road and watch it go. I make a joke: “If we die now, you know that what people will see when they open our journals are notes about coffins, right?” Nimi seems to be processing this. She screams.
We stumble on another coffin maker’s workshop. In chalk, on the fascia is written: “MR. BABS CASKETS. Staring at the fine handwriting, Nimi bursts into laughter. I remember something Joseph said: “You can’t bury a corpse in two coffins.”