The Box

Karen Radford Treanor 


Copyright 2020  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo of a wooden coffin.

It brought back many memories when I mentioned to Gene that I was sending this to you.  Sometimes it seems like yesterday that we arrived in Swaziland—and at other times it seems like somebody else’s story that we half-listened to at some boozy party.

While I was busy getting in and out of scrapes with the flora and fauna of Swaziland, my husband was hard at work at the National Joinery in Mbabane, the capital city. After many difficulties getting machinery, materials, and manpower, Gene had got something going which might be recognised as a woodworking shop-- "as long as you don 't look too closely", he said. He had the responsibility for everything, from refurbishing the physical plant to begging money for machinery from aid organizations, to installing and maintaining the machines, to getting a supply of wood for training projects. Eventually everything was shipshape, and Gene brought in the first six apprentices.

The men had only had a few weeks’ training when the Clerk of Works stopped by one day just before closing time. "We've got a problem,” he told Gene. “One of the labourers has died and the family has no money for a coffin. You and your men will have to build one."

Gene had never made a coffin, but he had several uncles in the funeral business. He’d seen a number of coffins over the years, and decided there couldn't be that much to it, not if he stuck to a simple early American design, the classic “shouldered” coffin. He assembled the apprentices at the drawing board and made a sketch, with dimensions, to show them what to do.

"Maduna, do you know what this is?" he asked.

Maduna stepped closer, did a double take, and quickly stepped back. "Th-th-that's lipokisi, Sir," he stammered, eyes rolling like a character in a 1940’s politically incorrect movie.

Gene thought this was a put-on, but soon learned that, to a man, all six apprentices wanted nothing to do with death and coffins. He asked Zwanee how he thought lipokisi, ‘the box’, should be built, but Zwanee said he didn't want to think about it at all. He immediately launched into a heart-rending story of a sick mother who needed him to come home early. Even with the offer of paid overtime, none of the six wanted to stay to help build the coffin.

Gene finally pulled rank and said "You will all stay. This is part of your training as woodworkers. What are you going to do if you are back in your village, in your own workshop, and someone comes wanting a coffin?"

Maduna muttered something that might have been "Tell them to go away", but wouldn't repeat it when pressed.

There was little joy in the joinery that night but they all stayed. All six of the men kept as far from the assembly site as possible, ostensibly searching for tools and timber and paint. It was 5:15 in winter, the sun was going down, and the electricity had been shut off at the main switch. The darker the joinery got, the faster everyone worked.

Eventually a quick cheap coffin was constructed of pine and masonite.

One of the friends of the deceased came by to see how things were going and said, "I do not think he will fit. He is very long, and this box, it is not very long."

Gene and the apprentices were a bit upset at this news. Gene handed David a tape and said "Go measure the body."

David wanted to do this like he wanted to meet Dracula. It was only when the friend of the newly dead man offered to come along that he agreed to do the job. He returned quickly with the news that the departed had been five feet eleven inches tall--which meant the coffin was two or three inches too short.

"Obviously we will have to fix this coffin, as there isn't time to make another." Gene said, briefly considering the alternative solution and discarding it. "Maduna, rip the end off and we'll add in a section."

Neither Maduna nor anyone else wanted to touch the tape that had touched the body, and Gene had to get a new one out of the storeroom before work could proceed. He decided it would be a waste of time to try to convince the six men that death was not contagious.

With the power off, all the work had to be done by hand. Gene found some fancy skirting board material and with the aid of a mitre box, fashioned it into a coffin extender. Some quarter-round molding tacked to the edge of the lid gave the coffin a less severe look and helped keep the extra bit of lid in place. The bottom was repositioned, and the entire box sprayed with quick-drying black paint. (Fortunately the air compressor ran on petrol and could still be used.) By the light of a Coleman lantern, some brass drawer handles were found and screwed onto the sides of the coffin.

The coffin was delivered in the Public Works Department truck in time for that evening's wake. The bereaved family thought the coffin was the flashest thing they'd ever seen, and were loud in their praises of Gene and his men.

When the realization hit home that they were local heroes for building lipokisi, the apprentices felt like pretty big men. By next day they were strutting about the PWD yard announcing to anyone who would listen that "We were the ones who built 'The Box'. “ To hear them tell it you'd have thought it was their idea in the first place.

Gene said he was tempted to tell them that because they'd done such a good job, in future all employees' coffins would be built by the joinery apprentices.

"The only thing that held me back was the thought of twelve feet dancing up and down my spine in the rush for the door," he said.

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