TUNDE DODONDAWA and SEGUN KASALI went seeking the ‘deadly’ business. SYLVESTER OKORUWA had his eyes for it. LANRE ADEWOLE shared a peep into the unusual trading between the living and the dead.
Living off the dead should ordinarily be a condemnable act. But what happens if the dead choose to feed the living? Or how do you categorise those whose means of livelihood is completely built on providing comfort for the dead and doing so isn’t just a favour but a business venture which generations have profited from and many to come, will ultimately live on.
Odunlami Street is Island’s Coffin Street and its history is as rich as any other business conglomerate.
Over 50 years ago, there was a carpenter. He lived at No. 9 Odunlami Lane. He had ideas about the dead. His generations have lived off the ‘deadly’ ideas. Others who also saw ‘the light’ are making a fortune off his vision. His name was Pa. Olatunji Okusanya. Does the name ring any bell?
Odunlami street as the homestead of funeral rites business dates back to the 1960s. Now, it plays host to contemporary undertakers and funeral service providers, mostly for the elite and the crème-de-la-crème in Nigerian society. The only business known to the street is ‘death’ business.
Generational businesses also have a way of creating special identity, including geographical identity. Apart from looming large in the consciousness of target customers, many have also gone ahead to occupy physical space which now carries their emblem.
Mention Wall Street in New York and global commerce immediately fills your vision. In recent times, however, the name conjures more negatives, with the operators of the popular street carrying the cross of troubling global trade.
What about Broad Street on Lagos Island? It is Nigeria’s equivalent of Wall Street. It is ramping up its own notoriety too.
You can actually call Lagos Island the warehouse of the state’s history. Nearly everything that defines the state, resides there; the mighty Dodan Barracks of ‘blessed’ memory, the famous Defence House and the former and abandoned sky-scrapping Federal Secretariat.
Interestingly just across Broad Street where men in suit (more like crime-in-suit now) strive to live off fellow men, is another kind of commerce, where men are living off the dead.
However, in Nigeria, someone had the vision during the post-independence era to provide the services of undertaker and casketing as a professional. Pa Okunsanya, according to a resident who simply identified himself as Tope, specialised in crafting fine caskets from woods with touches of finesse” This attracted several people within the community to learn the trade of casket making. He had promoted entrepreneurship by engaging several apprentices and trained them in the art of making caskets. He said many of these people later became his competitors.
Shedding more light on the historical background of Odunlami Street as a foremost home to exotic caskets, in a chat with Saturday Tribune, Dare, Sales and Marketing Manager, Omega Funeral, also concurred with the fact that the late Pa Okunsanya made famous the business of casket making.
He however emphasised that the late Olatunji Okusanya, the son of Pa Olatunji Okusanya, modernised the art of making exotic caskets and funeral services, including introduction of undertakers.
Modernisation of business of casket making later spread across the country starting from areas like Surulere, Mushin, Ajah and Gbagada and now in every part of the country.
Today, if you mention ‘Odunlami Street’, what comes to mind is homestead of funeral homes. Exotic caskets and modern funeral services would also readily come into the picture. At present, Odunlami Street can boast of leading funeral service providers in the country. Many funeral directors have earned and will continue to earn their living on the street of Odunlami.
To satisfy the curiosity behind some beliefs that concentration of casket makers and funeral service providers at Odunlami Street may have some spiritual effects, Dare stated that “it was just a coincidence that we may have the largest concentration of casket makers at a particular street when compared with other regions. It wasn’t by any design or by any policy by the government but because most people doing the business here today were tutored by Pa Okusanya.”
A receptionist in one of the funeral service companies, Mr. Dapo Durojaiye, gave an insight into the cost of various caskets mostly influenced by tribes.
He said the price of locally-made caskets ranged from N250,000 to N600,000 while prices of imported caskets ranged from N1,700,000 to N2,500,000.
He added that they receive huge patronage from the Yoruba while the Igbo prefer the most expensive caskets.
On the pains and gains of the business to employees that eventually take up the job of undertakers, Mr. Dada Derenle said working as an undertaker has afforded him the opportunity to visit places he had never dreamt of going.
“The money was not really much, but it was enough for me to get married and start a family. That was 22 years ago. The job is about picking corpses and taking them to the mortuary or to the cemetery for burial. But the challenge is that one could be called at any time of the day to face corpses,” he said.
Another stakeholder in the funeral business, Yemi Adeniran, said he almost lost his marriage to the business.
According to him, “My wife once told me that if she knew my job involved going to the mortuary almost every day to visit corpses, she would not have married me. But today that is history because I now have my own business,” he said.
He thanked God for giving him the grace to serve humanity, and “it has afforded me the opportunity to travel far and wide in the country”.
Speaking on the beliefs and traditions of some tribes which always resulted in additional pay for the undertakers, some of the sales attendants who spoke on the condition of anonymity, stated that they sleep with corpses when the need arises.
“This happens when the deceased family members do not want anybody to tamper with the deceased, so as to guard against any malicious and untoward act,” one of them stated.
When Saturday Tribune visited, Odunlami street was quiet. Saturday Tribune was told it is always quiet. What do you expect where a solemn business is conducted. Nothing extraordinary. No rowdiness. Saturday Tribune observed that the movement of vehicles and people was not as frequent as other market areas within its axis.
All the funeral service companies have at least one uniformed staffer at their doorsteps, trying to persuade customers to patronise them. Can you imagine that?
Caskets were not displayed at the front-doors of the companies, but were obvious when passed by because transparent doors were used by all. Great marketing strategy without offending sights and sensibilities, you would say.
Anyone who is visiting Odunlami Street for the first time may never have the impression that such a street shares same neighbourhood with the popular 157-year old CSS Bookshop which welcomes you as you step onto the street. Do the dead too read?
The Lagos State e-library centre also announces its presence with its colourful edifice while the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina, established in 1946, also boasts of its elitism and may have given the impression that Odunlami street is very popular across the globe.
To all visitors from Obalende, the existence of the High Courts and the famous City Hall may never give the impression of what lies ahead. What a company to share!
If you have not been to the Coffin Street, Saturday Tribune has news for you. Don’t go expecting a head-swelling experience.
Spirits of the dead haven’t visited in about 38 years, according to Tope. But there isn’t a telling when they could come seeking a rebate!