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Why it is taboo to sell coffins in West Pokot

By Irissheel Shanzu | June 14th 2021

Carpenters with workshops in Kapenguria and Makutano towns don’t make or display coffins.

After losing a loved one in West Pokot County, the agony of where to buy a coffin to give the deceased a decent send-off begins.

During the colonial era, the village elders imposed a ban on making coffins in the area to wade off the “spirit of death”.

It is a ban inherited from one generation to another and this forces families and friends to travel from West Pokot to neighbouring Trans Nzoia County to buy coffins in the event of death.

For instance, when 60 people died in a landslide tragedy that wiped part of Chesogon village, coffins had to be bought from Kitale.

Pokot council of elders organising secretary Joseph Lopetakori said making coffins was viewed as one way of welcoming death.

“We can’t accept such business. We have all other kinds of businesses, but selling coffins is totally forbidden,” he said, adding that they believe so much in their culture and they can’t allow anyone to go against it.

He noted that when a person dies and there is no coffin nearby, the body is usually wrapped in a blanket and buried.

“We give a befitting send-off for the deceased in our own unique way. The elders and pastors pray for the dead and we believe God exists,” he said, adding that the elders play a critical role in making sure good manners are instilled among the residents.

“Just seeing a coffin on display instills a lot of fear among locals. Carpenters don’t have the courage to make coffins and put them on display,” he said. 

While death is inevitable as a rite of passage, carpenters with workshops in Kapenguria and Makutano towns don’t make or display coffins as this is viewed as a bad omen.

Bernard Simiyu, who owns a workshop in Makutano, noted that he only makes coffins on requests but cannot display them outside his workshop.

“If you attempt to open a workshop to sell coffins, the elders will be on your case and close your business. It’s taboo to sell coffins within the county. Most carpenters from outside the county were shocked when they found things being done differently here,” Simiyu said.

He notes that for the five years he has been a carpenter, he cannot engage in this business as residents might turn against him.

Rodgers Kimamach, another carpenter, noted that the community perceives the sale of coffins as a business that can enrich someone simply because the more coffins on display, the more deaths they attract.

Masitait Lokles, Pokot South chairman council of elders, noted that in other counties the coffin business is booming but in West Pokot if someone opens such a business it will be closed.

“Even in the ancient days, there were no coffins. People used to be buried without a coffin. We have no problem with other tribes making coffins, but I am sure they will feel odd and end up stopping that business,” he said.

He added that in 2014 there was a carpenter who had opened a coffin shop near Kapenguria County Hospital, but the business was shut by the elders.

“I went there to buy a coffin but when I visited that shop a week later, I found it closed. His instincts might have driven him to close it after realising he was the only person in the entire county with such a business,” he said. Jackson Losiwa, a resident, said in Pokot traditions and beliefs they don’t permit burial items to be displayed openly. 

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