Cardboard Coffins Take Funeral Industry by Storm
By Dilanthi Jayamanne
Pix by Udesh Ranasinha
While family and friends mourn the dead, there are others who find business opportunities in those tears. Although a majority of people would prefer to talk about the last rites of their dead in hushed tones, there are others who would give a silent whoop of joy that they themselves are alive and in business to earn a few bucks in burying the dead.
But the fact is that for many middle- and low-income families in Sri Lanka there is no burden heavier, than the burden of marriage and death. Setting aside the more joyous tidings of marriage, this will focus on the sombre topic of death and funerals. No one talks of a grand funeral, although they would probably say that the dead person was given a rollicking send-off. Only the person’s immediate family would know the cost they incurred on the finer aspects of the funeral, starting from the purchasing of a coffin to bury the dead.
Then along came the COVID-19 issue and people started dying of the viral infection. The demand for coffins increased and COVID-19, like the Tsunami in 2004, became a roaring business opportunity for most undertakers and florists, especially those with strategically situated shops close to hospitals. Hospital employees or paid hands from the undertaker were known to recommend this or that undertaker on the pretext of helping the bereaved family members in their time of sorrow to “find the person who would do the job for them at a reasonable amount.”
There are those who want to ensure that even after death, their relative has a decent coffin to rest in during his or her final hours on earth.
Therefore, even if the coffin is poorly made, with low-quality wood, with or without interior trimmings, most members of the public would pay no less than Rs 30,000 for the contraption. Conditions are worse at institutions like Colombo South Teaching Hospital - Kalubowila, where the cemetery is not more than 200 metres away. COVID-19 infected bodies, which are disposed of as quickly as possible without the procedure of embalming, and are already placed in body bags, undergo the entire procedure and are sent off at no less than Rs 30,000 to 40,000.
With this situation, it did not take long for the next of kin of those patients who had succumbed to COVID-19, to complain to hospital authorities at Kalubowila, and accuse hospital staff of paving the way for robbery and corruption.
Grieved by this situation and in desperation, Consultant Judicial Medical Officer, Dr. Prasanna Dassanayake, called and appealed to the Director General of Health Services (DGHS), Dr. Asela Gunawardana for assistance in resolving the issue.
Dr. Gunawardana, who was the former Director of this Teaching Hospital, had informed him to contact City Councillor Priyantha Sahabandu of the Dehiwala Mount Lavinia Municipal Council (DMMC), who he said had a solution to his problem.
Felling trees to produce coffins
A large number of trees are sacrificed to produce coffins. Before the COVID-19 situation, there were around 350 to 400 deaths in the country on a daily basis. A majority of the dead were those whose families would use a coffin for burial, for which a large number of trees are felled. If furniture was made from the wood taken from those trees it would remain inside a home for a long period, Sahabandu, who is also a pharmacist, said when Ceylon Today met him at the DMMC’s Funeral Parlour. “Cutting down trees to make coffins, which would remain in all glory, with its fine padded interior on display for a maximum of three days, before it is either buried six feet under or incinerated is a crime,” he said.
In addition to the expenditure incurred in setting the coffin ablaze using electricity or gas, it takes several years for the coffin itself to decay once buried, for which even its dead occupant would have to account for in the afterlife, he lamented.
People cut down forests for building constructions etc. But this aspect of deforestation can be halted. “Merely asking people to stop chopping down trees to build coffins is useless,” he said, observing that in 2019 he had first suggested manufacturing a wooden box to be reused. The money which was made as a down payment for the box could be given to the family of the dead person, while a rich person could be invited to deposit that money in a fund set up at the Council to assist another poor family during a funeral, or to invest in a scholarship for a poor child. The proposal was set before the Health Committee of the Council, which was then submitted to the Council meeting in February last year. However, although it was approved with a majority vote at the time, the Council could not implement it.
Sahabandu said in the meantime he had met an institution known as ‘Packwell’ and described his requirement for “a cardboard instead of a wood for coffins.” He had also met DGHS, Dr. Gunawardana, when he was the Director of Teaching Hospital Kalubowila and briefed him regarding his efforts to curtail the purposeless destructive use of wood in the manufacturing of coffins.
People are already weighed down with social and financial burdens stemming from the coronavirus. Besides fear of being a victim to the viral infection, they have to think of ways and means of keeping their home fires burning, their children who have been unable to go to school, and live in fear of losing their jobs. A great number of families are faced with this issue. To have to put a family in this situation through the ordeal of having to spend an enormous amount of money for a coffin and the performance of last rites at this stage is something that should be averted.
The Councillor said he had taken the appeal made by the Kalubowila JMO, to the Sub Committee of the DMMC and rekindled the proposal which had been submitted by him last year.
A price quoted for a box was Rs 4,500. Also, the DMMC does not have a hearse. “Therefore, we were able to identify the owner of one in the vicinity on hire at a cost of Rs 5,000. He said this was inclusive of the personal protective equipment (PPE) that was to be worn by the driver of the vehicle. The Council also incurred a cost of about Rs 14,000 for the employees of the crematorium and the PPE which was required to be worn by them during the handling of COVID-19 infected bodies even if it was inside a coffin.
Sahabandu said a proposal was mooted by him to provide the entire service at a cost of Rs 10,000 per head. This was approved by the DMMC Mayor and its Commissioner. However, there were those who felt that the Council should not intervene in the matter as well.
With no allocation made towards purchasing the boxes, he was compelled to draw the attention of Facebook users to the Council’s requirement. It was in this instance that veteran Media personality Ariyasiri Withanage provided Rs 100,000 to purchase the cardboard coffins.
He said the project had been launched with this. “We had samples of the boxes with trimmings and satin interiors that could be used to bury a person who dies of natural causes and those which were to be used for persons who die of COVID-19. A body which weighs up to 100 kilogrammes could be placed in this coffin, which has been specially designed to take the weight. The box is made of recycled cardboard and paper collected by “bothal pattara kaarayas,” and the Council employees who collect these items and sell them to places that recycle and sell the product to institutions like ‘Packwell’ to produce boxes such as these, Sahabandu explained.
The only drawback is that the box should not get wet. The strength of any cardboard box deteriorates when it gets wet. This should be placed carefully in a dry place by those who opt for the cardboard coffin and ensure that it does not get wet.
The concept is currently being implemented only within the jurisdiction of the DMMC. But there are other provincial and local governments which could implement this environmentally friendly and economically viable method of disposing of at least the COVID-19 dead. Already, the Local Government in Anuradhapura and an undertaker in Kobeigane have approached the DMMC requesting the cardboard coffin. However, the Council has requested for an undertaking that the boxes and the service would be provided at a reasonable amount not exceeding Rs 15,000 and would not be misused. “Our aim is to protect the environment and at the same time to ensure that the public receive the economic benefit of using such a coffin,” he added.
“Also, this is not a private enterprise. It was only established on a concept which was submitted by me. This is currently being facilitated and carried out by the DMMC, which is responsible for initiating this programme,” he said.
“Undertakers and owners of funeral parlours should not see this as a challenge to their business. This too in fact is a part of their craft and they should only take up the challenge of enhancing this concept and taking it forward to suit the needs of society,” Councillor Sahabandu said.
Everyone knows that COVID-19 has turned into a money-making venture. Those governing the country and top brass who run quarantine facilities, those who bring down the technology for COVID-19 testing are guilty of ‘milking COVID-19 to the very last coin that it could squirt.’ Therefore, it is not surprising that even the undertaker chooses to fatten his purse using the misery of the victims of this virus. But it is time for more people to ‘think outside the box,’ and come up with more ways of bringing more rays of solace to the masses suffering the weight of a country set upon by a viral infection.