“A Week in the Life” is a weekly Zikoko series that explores the working-class struggles of Nigerians. It captures the very spirit of what it means to hustle in Nigeria and puts you in the shoes of the subject for a week.
Today’s subject is Chief Ogunsekan, a coffin maker. He tells us how being the boundary between the living and dead has shaped his outlook of the world.
I wake up by 6 am today. I usually don’t wake up this early unless I have a burial to plan. I go to the mortuary to prepare a corpse for lying-in-state which is by 10 am. I supervise my boys as they bathe and make up the body for the church service. Bodies that have been in the mortuary are embalmed, so they don’t smell. This makes the work bearable. The mortuary delays us till around 8 am but we still make it in time for the service.
By 11:30 am we proceed to the cemetery for the final rites. I am providing a full package for the client and that involves cameraman, band boys, wreath, casket, ambulance, and pallbearers.
My pallbearers are in charge of lifting the casket to the burial ground. The coffin is lowered into the ground and this signifies the end of my service. I go over to collect my balance from the bereaved. Because burials are expensive, we allow part payment until the rites are finished.
Some people pay us from the money friends spray them on the day of the burial. Others from asoebi money they gather. We understand how expensive burials are, so we give them this option.
My client is trying to be funny. They say they have spent more money than they bargained for and they don’t have my balance. I tell my boys to go and rent diggers and shovels so we can remove the body and take our casket. No payment, no service. Everyone looks worried and eventually, the guests at the burial raise a loan for my balance. I thank them, pay my staff and head back to the office. Just another day at the job.
The office opens at 8 am. I have someone who opens the office for me so I don’t have to go in that early. I am now a chief in my hometown so this means I can’t focus on only one stream of income. Being a chief means spending money and this is why I have another business that adds to my income: I import shoes, shirts and sell to retailers. Life is funny because 23 years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be a chief or even be able to rent a house.
For the first three years when I started selling coffins, I used to sleep in between them, on top of them, underneath them. I was struggling so bad that I couldn’t afford to rent a house. Also, because I started this business quite young, people would run from me. Many people were sure I was going to die quickly so they avoided me completely.
You bury so many people in 20 years that you no longer keep track. Sometimes, people on the road see me and thank me for my service. I always try to remember who they are: Is this the person I helped drive a body overnight from Lagos to Calabar? Or was it Lagos to Abia?
These days I am no longer as involved in the business because I am now a titled person. I don’t have time like before because I have too many pressing issues to take care of. I am in charge of making preparations to crown a new king so I have to shuttle between my hometown and Lagos almost every week.
Today, my ten-year-old daughter is at the office to assist. She grew up watching me interact with customers so she has become prolific at selling. She understands how to price and offer customers various packages. One of her tactics is to tell customers that they should patronise her daddy because it’s out of this business she will get money for feeding for the next day. So, even when I am not around, they always ask for my number and call saying my daughter has convinced them to patronise me. I am proud of how sharp she is.
When I first told her mum, my wife, what I did for a living, she was shocked. I was not surprised because the women I had dated in the past had also been shocked and worried. There is a belief that because of this job, I will invite spirits into my life. That when I sleep, they will disturb me or even have conversations with me. I had to calm her down and reassure her that work doesn’t come home with me. Also, I tell them that as long as you didn’t kill the person, you have nothing to be afraid of.
I like to believe that there are blessings that come with this job after death. The funeral master covers up the many secrets of the dead and there are rewards that come with that. From the people at the cemetery to the ambulance drivers, coffin makers, pallbearers, they all play a role in covering up for the dead so they will all get rewarded.
This job has given me the fear of God. If you do this job and you are still wicked, your punishment starts from here. Not hereafter. My job is a constant warning that life is vanity. In my short time, I have seen people die in so many different ways; dying in their sleep, dying during prayers. After seeing all of these, you can’t tighten the world to your chest or even be wicked.
If our politicians did a job like this and had the constant reminder of death, we would all be better off for it. They have never done this kind of job before and were just thrust into power so there is no fear of God. If it was that before the person became appointed in the role, the person washed a dead body, or dug a grave, the person would understand the vanity of it all.
At the office today, an ambulance passed by and I said a prayer for the person in it to survive. Even though people die every day, I never pray for them to die so that my business will move. They are human beings like me so I must wish them the best because one day too, it’ll be my turn. You hear of the length some sellers go to make sales, some use juju around their shop to increase sales. You hear of others who go to the wards in hospitals to peep at patients and wait for them to die. I don’t bother with all of these because if there’s one thing I am sure of; we are all going to die. I am just hoping for a non-painful death.
What prompted me to start this work was that one day I realised that people die every day. I started out making furniture but business was slow and I was barely surviving, I even tried business but the gbese from buyers was just too much. But I came to the realisation that people die every day and people would want to be buried so I decided to try this business.
I go to bed at around 9/10 pm. I don’t have a lot of friends. Ever since I became a chief, a lot of people now greet me even though I don’t know them. Popular people don’t have friends so I don’t go out much and that’s why I go to bed early.
Today, someone came to rent my ambulance for burial and I told them: “This ambulance is a Formatic R class so it costs N150,000 per day within Lagos. Around Ogun, Ibadan, Osun, it’s N300,000 per day.” They didn’t expect such a cost. Now add this with the cost of a casket and other expenses, you can easily reach a million naira in expenses. So, what I do is ask them for their budget and offer them services based on that budget. It really is tough.
One thing that always surprises people is how expensive burials cost. Caskets range from N150,000 to N250,000 to N500,000 to N1 million. Depending on what you are hoping to get. Also, depending on additional services provided, it increases.
The struggle actually never ends. I am consoled by the fact that the day of death is the day of rest so I keep trying while I am here.
Today, I travel to my hometown for chieftaincy matters. I am a kingmaker, an Apena. This means that I am in charge of some of the rituals that the king must partake in. So, I must go home to supervise the preparations.
People ask me if I am scared of the rituals involved and I wonder why I should be. How can I be scared of what my forefathers have been doing before me? Something I was born into. I tell them that tradition is like learning a craft and I started since I was young so I have mastered it.
As long as I know that we are not hurting anyone, there is nothing to be scared of. I am a tough man and can do what most people can’t do. I have slept in the same car with dead bodies while transporting them interstate. In the past, I have dug graves. I have also had to bathe a corpse. So, what do I have to be afraid of?
I am not harming anyone and I am forever preparing for death so I have nothing to fear. I will be back to Lagos in 5 days time because I really have a lot of things to attend to on this journey. Then we start all over again until our day of rest finally comes.
**This conversation was had in Yoruba and was edited and condensed for clarity.
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