When death is your business How some artisans have found a goldmine in the ‘rejected’ coffin making business

Coffin making is a field that lots of people will decline to venture into but, unbeknownst to many, it is one of the most booming businesses in the country, writes Pulse Ghana’s Emmanuel Ayamga.

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It’s a dull, rainy day here in the southern part of Accra, and as usual businesses are ongoing in every corner. The capital is a business-friendly city with persons busily engaged in all manner of crafts.

Despite the seemingly tough economic conditions, the young men and women in this part of the country are defiant, tirelessly trying to make ends meet. Take a drive through the city and you will immediately realise that vendors and traders are commonplace.

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But somewhere around the Korle-Bu mortuary road, a group of energetic young men are also busily going about their duties.

What do they do?

They carve, they saw logs, they hit nails into planking – they simply make coffins!

Some coffin's at Joseph Lamptey's shop play

Some coffin's at Joseph Lamptey's shop

 

In this part of Accra, the most common job you would find is coffin making. About seven different coffin making shops can be found on the stretch of the road. Intriguingly, a glance at the working atmosphere clears every doubt that coffin making is for the hapless and crestfallen, as widely held.

These men seem to enjoy what they do: they look happy, chatting and cracking jokes in unison as they try to shape the logs into the preferred coffin size.

Heck! These are not your archetypal corporate workers; neither are they engineers nor doctors. These are coffin makers, yet their demeanors – effusive with radiance and cheer – suggest contrary to the perception the public holds about their craft.

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Some have called it a job for the brave, while others believe only ‘evil minds’ will ever engage in such an occupation since proceeds in this field can only be made when someone else is dead. But for these coffin makers – and they prefer to be called carpenters – it is a big business, a full-time job for that matter.

Joseph Lamptey is the Secretary of the Korle-Bu Coffin Makers Association. He has been in this business for more than a decade, and he explains how he found himself in this oft-maligned field.

“I never thought of becoming a coffin maker, but now I find myself in this field because I grew up in a family that embraces coffin making. You could say I inherited it because I come from a family that took coffin-making as a business,” Lamptey narrates in an exclusive interview with Pulse Ghana.

“My father used to make caskets and sell, so growing up, any member of the family who wished to tow the same line was allowed to. It was like a family business, so let’s just say my father passed it on to me.”

 

Coffin makers in this part of the world face a lot of stereotypes from the people around them. From being labeled as people who rejoice in the death of others to being tagged as insensitive humans; one must have a thick skin to be able to thrive in such a field. But what should they expect when death has become their business?

Lamptey insists his own nuclear family kicked against him going into casket making. And for someone who took up this job at a very tender age, he was not spared of the stigma that people in this field normally attract.

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“It was tough when I first decided to venture into coffin making,” he recalls, looking somewhat fixated. “By then I was a student, and I combined school with whatever I was doing. My classmates used to laugh at me all the time due to the work I engaged in. I was a young boy making coffins!

“Then it became even tougher when my immediate [nuclear] family also started to criticize my work. Apparently, my wife and children were also being subjected to the same stigma as I was. Perhaps, they didn’t feel comfortable being called the wife, daughter or son of a coffin maker.

“However, as time went on they had to understand me. I had to make them understand that making of caskets is also a job like any other.”

In a profession where very few would want to venture into, Lamptey believes people must begin to realize that coffin making is also carpentry. To him, the profession falls within the category of artistry, and must rightly be given its place in society without any prejudicial sentiment.

 

He accepts that death has become his business, but he strongly rejects claims that coffin makers “pray” for others to die so their businesses can blossom.

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“You see, it depends on the perception out there,” he says with a wry smile. “Some people think we [coffin makers] are happy when others die because we will then make money. But the truth is that coffin making is just like any other job.

“We never pray for anyone to die. We are also carpenters. Just like a carpenter carves and makes tables and chairs, we also design and make caskets. It’s virtually the same and there’s no spiritual string attached. So you can refer to us as carpenters as well. People must begin to appreciate our work and stop condemning us because we have done nothing wrong. We are just working as anyone else.”

He adds that casket making is a full-time job, further explaining that he caters for his family through the money he makes from this business.

Checks from Pulse Ghana indicate that coffins in the capital cost between GHc250 and GHc4,000, depending on the preferred shape, size and quality.

Although Lamptey refused to disclose the exact prices of the caskets at his shop – except for one looking to make a purchase – he was sure that it is a rewarding job.

 

“I have taken coffin making as a professional job. I enjoy the work I do and it’s paying off. You see, I’m doing better than some of my friends who even have higher educational qualifications,” Lamptey proudly remarks, pointing to a boutique just adjacent, as if to say ‘hey I make more money than the owner of that shop’.

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He re-emphasises that he means every word when he says the job pays, disclosing that the sustainability of his family over the years has been through the coffin making business.

“I’m able to cater for my family through this business. I’m married with five children – two of whom are currently in the university – but I look after all of them well. Not many of my colleagues in the so-called better jobs can boast of such stability, but here I am, a common coffin maker [like they say], catering for my family through this business.”

Like in every business there are the good, not so good and, the bad days. According to Lamptey, there comes a season when the caskets are bought in fast times, likening the situation to that of the cocoa season for a farmer. He insists that those times are the heydays for all coffin makers, but was quick to add that there are also times when sales of caskets witness diminishing returns.

“Like I said, there is money in coffin making. But there are seasons when you gain and times when business becomes dull,” he says casting his mind to some months back when he could barely sell a single coffin. “Especially during festivals like Christmas and Easter, there is no market. This is because many people are in party mode in those times and that relegates all funeral activities.

“Most funerals are postponed during such times, so it reduces the number of coffins that are bought. However, there are also times when you sell so many coffins that you are even left amazed. So it’s just like any other business. We also have good and bad seasons.”

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Lamptey is aware that many of today’s youth would not want to even conceive the idea of taking to coffin making, let alone make it a point to learn the trade. However, he believes the current state of the nation – with unemployment levels very high – should be enough reason for the upcoming generation to start looking at other alternative occupations.

In his view, the youth must begin to venture into businesses like coffin making because it is not as bad a job as many perceive it to be.

“Obviously, not everyone has the courage to go into this business [of coffin making], but I advise the youth to start looking at this field. There are no jobs in town so if you find yourself here you should not reject it,” Lamptey suggests, adding that “people do not know that it is a lucrative job so they shun it. But coffin making is just like construction or carpentry and the youth must embrace it.” 

With over a decade experience in this business, there can be doubt that Lamptey has managed to deal with the frequent stigma that has come his way so far. But just in case you still don’t appreciate his courage and zeal, imagine yourself when death becomes your business; when your pocket depends on the demise of others and when your livelihood is pinned on other people’s saddest moments.

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