Coffins are a sad business but they have to be made

The economy may be contracting because of Covid-19, but the funeral sector is on the up. 

And business is booming at Peter Louw’s SA Coffin Training School in Boksburg, Gauteng. 

It’s a three-person business that was set up in 2002 to make coffins and caskets. Louw, a retired carpenter, soon realised there was an opportunity to teach others. Eighteen years later, after adding a secretary, the school is busier than ever. 

“People who lost their carpentry businesses and customers because of the pandemic say they want to do something to supplement their income. But there’s also the other side, where small businesses are seeing a demand to supply communities,” Louw said. 

The training centre was closed during the first two months of the lockdown, but it kept going by selling DIY training kits to enable would-be coffin-makers to teach themselves at home. 

For a kit costing R2 600, trainees receive learning materials, including an instructional video, and an infant’s coffin as a model. For R4 600, people can attend a two-day course at the school. 

Louw said demand for training is so high that they plan to open training schools in Cape Town. 

Covid-19-related deaths, coupled with joblessness and shrinking salaries, are taking a financial toll on families. Louw described the inquiries he is receiving about ready-made coffins and caskets as “frightening”.

“The demand is increasing, not just people wanting to learn how to make coffins but also families who need them. They are desperate for quality at affordable prices. If two family members die in a short time, that’s going to cost the family a lot of money,” he said. 

Louw places a premium on quality as an expression of respect for the dignity of the dead — his are distinguished by their tapered shape. 

He estimates the cheapest, well-built coffin could cost as little as R1 200. Some businesses now offer sturdy cardboard coffins. 

Most South Africans prefer coffins in the mid-price range because they signify a dignified send-off. 

Louw said his business is “going strong”, but he believes no one should make excessive profits from a family’s grief. 

He is disappointed that some undertaker businesses are selling coffins for R20 000, but they cost only R2 000 to make.

But not everyone is attracted to the coffin business. 

“Talking about and working with coffins puts a lot of people off, including a lot of workers,” Louw said. “When we’ve had to courier caskets, some employees at the freight companies don’t want to touch them.

He added: “Some people don’t like the whole funeral industry, but someone has to do it.”  

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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