JUSSEY, France: It’s a grim truth that times are good for the coffin business when they’re bad for people, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.
At a factory belonging to Europe’s largest coffin maker, OGF, in eastern France, workers are doing overtime to meet demand from families parting with their loved ones.
“Due to the epidemic, we decided to manufacture just four models of coffins that are top sellers with families” compared to the 15 types usually on offer, said factory director Emmanuel Garret.
The change “allowed us to optimise production”, he added.
Output has risen to 410 coffins per day, compared to 370 normally.
Workers are putting in nearly an extra hour per day.
“People have been forewarned and are ready to come in and work on Saturdays,” said Didier Pidancet, who heads up the team that selects the wood for the coffins.
France has been one of the countries worst hit by the coronavirus.
“We’re proud to be participating in this national effort, we’re doing our best to ensure that victims can have their final overcoat, as we say,” added Pidancet.
Founded in 1910, the factory in the town of Jussey originally produced wood charcoal and flooring. At the outset of World War II it began to specialise in making coffins.
It is now part of the OGF Group, which has two factories including the one at Jussey, and makes one in four coffins used in France.
The 10 ha site is responsible for the entire process of producing coffins. It strips the logs, cuts then dries the wood, which is eventually crafted and assembled into coffins.
The wood, mostly oak, comes from local forests.
While temporarily cutting back on the number of models, the factory has made another adjustment: it has been making more larger coffins.
“Orders for larger sizes are up a bit,” said Garret, although he declined to draw a link to reports that COVID-19 mortality rates are higher for overweight people.
While many manufacturers have encountered problems as lockdown restrictions complicate deliveries, the Jussey factory is well stocked.
“We’re OK, we have three months of stocks of wood, glue, nails and varnish,” said Garret.
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‘PLAY OUR PART’
Some of the factory’s workers are no strangers to previous surges in deaths.
“During the 2003 heatwave we increased production to 500 caskets a day,” said David Theurez, a 30-year veteran at the site.
The heatwave, which claimed nearly 15,000 lives in France, was in some ways more difficult for the factory as they had no warning and had to call workers back from vacation.
“But today, it’s a bit different, you have to protect yourself as well with masks and gloves,” said Theurez.
“It’s a collective crisis, we all have to make an effort and play our part,” he added.
The factory’s workers themselves haven’t gone unscathed: three have come down with COVID-19.
Fifteen others are at home, forced into isolation by existing serious health issues, or because they have to mind their children as school has been cancelled.
Like many other French companies, the factory has had difficulty obtaining protective gear for all of its employees.
It had a local seamstress make masks for employees and work stations are disinfected regularly.
The factory’s director thinks that the rapid adoption of social distancing measures and protective gear has helped them avoid more cases as eastern France has been hard hit with coronavirus infections.
“Fingers crossed,” said Garret.