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The Hired Coffin
I got the inspiration for The (Hired) Coffin at an Igbo funeral many years ago. The story ended up in my 1999 book, African Tales at Jailpoint . Sighs Rene, a character in that novelised anthology, 'Last week I got news that my uncle died of a stroke. He has five kids, the oldest is twelve. His death was a tragedy for the family.'

He sighed again. 'His burial will be a calamity.'

Beloved, rest in perfect peace (though your death has left me in such a great distress). I miss you so! I wept like a baby when I first saw your corpse, although I managed without tranquilisers (until I worked out the budget for your burial ceremonies).

I have made the announcement. I have put your extended family, town union, and old girls' association on notice of your burial. Here I am now (and all my worldly goods) on the morning of your burial. It is 8 am on the eightieth day after a hit-and-run molue crushed you dead as you bent over the second-hand clothes at the okrika market (it has taken all that time for me to raise the funeral budget). The gay and gaudy canopies are spread. The tables are set with plates and cups borrowed from Iya Ranti, (Ranti herself is walking around to make sure none are filched). We have chosen and sewn a mourning uniform of the latest lace design. I have hired a thousand chairs. I have hired two dee-jays and I have hired Alawawi - you know his live band is the latest craze. I wish you could have seen it all - (it's even grander than our wedding reception).
Yet it is not enough! (Oh, I have such a headache!)
It is now 10 am and here, at the graveyard is mustered all my worldly wealth. Yet it is not enough to bury you. (In our five years of marriage, Dearest, I have not spent the kind of money that I am now spending to inter you.) I have bought the rice, the cow and the goats. I have bought the yams and the drinks. (I had to sell my car, I had to hock my shares and suits.) I have bought you, brand-new, the grandest grave clothes. (I only wish you had a dress this beautiful while you were alive.) I have hired a small tribe of caterers, they have been cooking for days now. I have hired traditional dancing troupes. (I have sold my family heirloom - my one, dear, last plot of land. Apologise to Dad for me.)
I have put your obituary in the papers, on the radio and on TV. (I have borrowed, I have afflicted all my friends indeed with debts.) I have hired an ambulance to ferry you from where you lay in state to the graveyard. (I have demanded - God forgive me! - and I have accepted unaccustomed bribes.) I have hired a public address system for your graveside oration. (I have worked nights.) I have paid the local council to block three streets for your funeral party. (Loans! Dearest, the next four years of my life, I will be working to repay loans!) I have paid your huge mortuary bill, which ran up while I ran myself ragged raising your burial budget. (Remember your lovely Morocco trinkets? I sold them.) But I cannot afford to buy your casket yet. (I have such a headache!)
It is now 11 am. Your body should be lowered at 2 pm. My headache is worsened by an attack of asthma. (Why does an ailment never say to its brethren: `Sorry, in this very body, there is no room for you'?) Of course I can wrap you up in a blanket and lower you to your rest (and die of shame before that crowd of one thousand peers)! There has to be another way.
It is now 12 noon. (There is a humming in my ears and I wish that I were lying dead and you were burying me.) I am lying prostrate before the undertaker. (I am neither dead nor dying, I am merely begging for a casket on credit in which to bury you.)
But the undertaker is an experienced businessman. He will not permit his merchandise to be buried on credit. Darling, I am ashamed to admit that I break down into tears again. In fact I am weeping more that I did when I first saw your broken body bleeding into your beloved okrika clothes. (But think of the disgrace, how can I bury you without a coffin! Your family will never forgive me! People will still be talking about it when our son is old enough to marry: `See who is coming to ask for Sunkanmi's hand in marriage: a boy whose family was so poor his mother was thrown naked into a pauper's grave'!)
My tears are helping, though. To rid himself of this embarrassment of a blubbering forty-year-old, the undertaker is giving me wild discounts. But his deepest discount still leaves a huge gap between what I can pay and the price of his cheapest casket. - Aha, but here's what he can do! For the peanuts I have left, he can loan me a casket to convey you from where you lie in state, through the church ceremonies, right up to your grave side. You will be lowered in your blanket (as though it were a radical new vogue) and the ambulance will return the casket to the undertaker's shop!
Dearly Beloved, can you fault this arrangement? Pomp and pageantry from the mortuary, through your wake-keeping, right up to your grave side. I will give you a funeral whose splendour will quench the malicious okrika gossip. I will give you a funeral procession like no president ever had. I will read you an oration that spares no superlatives. (Finally, there at the lip of the grave, as your rich mourners turn to go, I will give the nod, the casket will be opened, you will be ceremoniously lowered in your blanket and the hired coffin will be returned to lender.)
It is now 2 pm. (Is it just me, or is this the hottest Friday this year?) Here we are at the cemetery. How red is the mound of dug-out earth; and how high. (Did all this sand come out of this one grave?) Your grave is dug and ready (it looks so deep that I get acrophobic, just looking in). There you lie, Dearly Beloved, in the best, most expensive casket I have ever seen. (Since it was just a two-hour hire, I insisted on the very best in the shop.)
This casket is a cynosure of eyes, Dearest, I can see the envy in the eyes of all your friends. They look from your casket to their husbands. They can see the gold and the glass and the velvet. They can see the anodised steel. They know you are going home in a casket more expensive than the cars they will soon be going home in. And they are asking themselves: if they died today, could their husbands have done for them what I am doing for you today? (I feel so good - not good , you understand, rich , - standing here beside your body. Standing here beside your casket.)
Here is the undertaker, that obese six-footer with the scowl, on the other side of your grave from me. He does not know you and has not come to pay his last respects; (he has come in respect of his casket). He has not come to watch you go home; (he has come to take his casket home). Oh, how now I loathe that terrible moment of disgrace when I must separate you from your casket.
There is a whispering that is starting from your friend Jamiu and is slowly spreading like an evil osmosis down through the ranks of your mourners. (I always warned you about that Jamiu!) Now they are looking at your coffin and whispering - and just look at the malice in their eyes! (Oh, but why didn't you die among the tomatoes!) Your friends are wicked Dearest. You know what they are saying, don't you? (`How can someone who died buying second-hand okrika blouses be buried in a casket like this?')
Your oration Dearest, I wish you could hear how wonderful, modest, humble and successful a woman we think you were. (I really wish you had died anywhere in the world outside the okrika stalls.) I am dying to have things this beautiful said of me.
- Now who is this late mourner being chauffeured into the graveyard in a slow, red Lexus? This car rolls like a bar of liquid gold (many eyes turn from your casket to the car and a few do not look back again). The oration is winding up as the mourner approaches in an incredibly ostentatious jacquard lace. (How he steals your show, Beloved!)
Now the grave-diggers are reaching their grubby hands for the hired coffin. A careless spade chinks the base of the casket, leaving an ugly wound on the whitened teak. (The undertaker flinches and glares at me, but, what has happened to my tongue?) This is the time to speak the word, to destroy utterly the illusion of wealth and confirm the penury that was your undoing among the okrikas. This is time to wrest open the coffin, lift your shawled figure and let it softly down into the grave. (Is this a headache or a blacksmiths' conference? Are these my temples or anvils?)
Your casket is taken and lifted. (The undertaker's eyes are like blowpipes lodging hot, poisoned needles into my body.) Dirty ropes are passed under his piece de resistance. It is high time for me to cough, and whisper (with the microphone well-shielded): `hold on boys, open the coffin and bury only the body (this coffin, like the housefly, will not follow the corpse into the grave)'.
How hot is my mourning black. How wet are my armpits and between my thighs. The undertaker is having a fit of significant coughs. The mourners are parting to let your ostentatious mourner through to the lip of your grave; rather like a crowd around an accident victim parting at the approach of a man with a stethoscope. There he shines, Beloved. The jewels on his lace and fingers, like the paint on his car, are catching the sun. (Is he perchance a minister or a tycoon?)
Before eyes like these, how can I strip myself naked of the majesty of your coffin?
You and the coffin are lowered. (God help me!) Now they stoop, taking up handfuls of wet, clinging clay to drop symbolically on the coffin. I bend over to trigger the ritual. (Again the undertaker coughs, twice, in warning, provoking a frown of rebuke from the reverend.) I cannot meet the undertaker's eyes. Instead, your grave seems to suck me in. I throw the first clod. (Can you believe I missed the coffin?) I strike the beautiful coffin on my third attempt. The undertaker whirls and stalks away; (perhaps he will be mistaken for an overwhelmed mourner). The hired coffin is pelted, Beloved. (But why does it feel as though the clods were falling on my head?)
A sob breaks through my steeled composure, the tears stream, soon I am blubbering like an orphan, people are holding and comforting me. (But the tears are not for you, Beloved; the coffin! Oh the coffin!!) Now the clay is pouring down with a vengeance. You and the most expensive coffin I ever saw are now buried under seven feet of earth that would cost a prison sentence to exhume. (So why do I feel dead?)
In minutes the biggest party that has ever been held in your honour will be underway (but you, you have joined the tribe under the gravestones). Now the sea of mourners is melting from your graveside, flowing to the cars on the roadsides. In minutes they will be under the canopies for the music, the food and the socials; (I have never felt more unsociable in my life). Now I am picking my way through the broken-down gravestones. (Does each grave-marker represent a grief like mine?) I am walking slowly (as though I bore seven feet of clay on my shoulders).
I couldn't do it to you, Beloved (or to myself for that matter). To strip you of the hired casket at the grave's mouth would have cost your burial its majesty (and me my reputation). It would have demeaned all that I had done before or could do afterwards. It would have been a pauper's cap set on a king's regalia.
Now it is 3 pm. It is all over for you (but it is just beginning for me). I am just passing the quiet Lexus. Now that there is no competing casket, everyone can stare with frank admiration. (Now what is this! The chauffeur is wearing the uniform of a car hire company!) The late mourner walks up, engrossed in excited conversation with a long-lost friend. (Their banter and laughter is better suited to a cocktail than a funeral; there is such a lack of graveside demeanour, Beloved, do you know these people?) Strangely Dearest, your late mourner does not climb into the rear seat of the Lexus, he walks up to the driver's window and - pays him off! The car is a hired limousine! (Is the stupendous lace outfit hired as well?) As the car removes sedately from the cemetery, the late mourner enters his friend's car for the drive to the canopies. The other cars swiftly leave the place of the dead for the place of the living (the first to get there will get the best food, the last, the worst).
It is 4 pm dearest, and I seem riveted to your new address. (How does the beginning of a heart attack feel?) Yes, I have bought and borrowed (and stolen) you a burial this town will not forget quickly. (I am so faint!) From here I can even hear the distant drums of Alawawi's band egging on the living to celebrate the dead (yet I, I feel such a kinship with your silent tribe under the stones). Where is the undertaker? This sullen black limousine pulling up and disgorging solemn men, is it his? (Beloved, their clothes, are these mourners' black or assassins' grey, do you think?) Well, I may not have as grand a funeral as yours Dearest, but with my galaxy of debtors, there would be more tears at my death for sure.
Here's an epitaph for anyone compelled by my stench to bury me: Rather dead than disgraced.

© 1999 Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.

"...the novelised anthology..."
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©2006 Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.