Thursday, September 10, 2009

Housing the dead

James Vakkachan has been supplying coffins to the people of Kochi for the past 21 years. But his family has been in the business for the past four generations

By Shevlin Sebastian

A priest who was using a prosthetic died sometime ago. His colleagues did not want to bury him with the artificial leg. But when the prosthetic was removed and the priest was fitted with trousers, it looked odd that he had no leg.

Immediately, James Vakkachan, of Vakkachan Coffin Works, Kochi, bought a pair of stockings and filled it with cotton, stuck it to the knee, and fixed a shoe at the bottom. “Nobody knew the priest did not have a leg,” he says.

On another occasion when a real estate magnate died at PVS Hospital, his body weighed over 100 kgs. James had to make a special coffin with a length of 6’ 5” and a width of 2’ 6”

However, when the coffin was brought to the hospital it could not be taken to the room because of its size. So the dead man had to be placed on a wheelchair, taken down in the elevator, and placed in the casket. All this is part of a day’s work in James’s life.

He has been running his shop at Vadathula for the past 21 years, following his father’s death. His father, Vakkachen, and his ancestors had been in the business for more than a hundred years.

At the shop, near Lourdes hospital, there are coffins made of plywood, teak and rosewood. The prices range from Rs 1500 to Rs 16,000. The average length of a coffin for a man is 6 feet long, with a width of 2 feet. For a woman the length is 5’ 5”, with a width is 1’6”.

“We usually give three inches space at the top and the bottom,” he says. “But there are some clients who want the body to fit exactly into the coffin. Then we have to make a new coffin with the correct measurement.”

James says the unprecedented rise in the price of mango wood – from Rs 35 per cubic feet forty years ago to Rs 300 per cubic feet today – and the high wages has eaten into his profits. He says he needs to sell high and low-priced coffins all the time to stay afloat.

“But I look at this job as a social service, rather than as a business,” he says. “You have to be on call 24 hours a day.” Sometimes, around 10 coffins are sold a month, while there are periods when there is no sale for some weeks. “That’s the way it is,” he says.

The surprising problem for James is that he faces a labour shortage, even though he is paying daily wages of Rs 350. “There is no acceptance of the job in society,” he says. “Carpenters are hesitant to work for me because of this.” So James has shifted the workshop to the terrace, so that clients will not see the workers. “But even then they are unwilling to come,” he says.

James says he is surviving at present because he has workers who have been doing this job for half a century. “But I feel that within the next ten years, I will not get anybody to do this job and will have to close shop,” he says. “This will be the case for others.”

He wants the government to render financial assistance, just like they do when farmers are in distress.

Over the years, James has noticed a disturbing trend: the suddenness of death. “In earlier times people would die of old age or a disease,” he says. “Nowadays, you can die at any moment and at any age. It could be from a heart attack, a kidney problem, a cancer, an accident, stress or murder. See how Muthoot Pappachen’s son Paul died? Could anybody have predicted that?”

Thanks to his profession, James is able to meet influential people: from bishops to ministers to tycoons. With a sense of pride he says that when popular actor Sukumaran’s body was displayed for public view, at Kochi, in 1997, it was in a coffin supplied by him.

Asked whether he feels sad because he is always meeting people who are struck numb by sorrow, because of the death of a close relative, he says, “This is what I have understood about life. If there is a birth there has to be a death. And you cannot escape from it. If you have led a good life, you will go to heaven; otherwise you will be in hell. So be careful how you live your life. One day there will be a reckoning.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)


  1. Quite interesting to know about James and his profession, may be the story style made more it interesting.

  2. Interesting read. To know about the humanity of those who assist those humans who are human no more!