LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigerian undertakers report that business is booming as the cost of dying soars in the Christian-dominated south of Africa's most populous country.
Death in Nigeria is laden with superstition and tradition.
"There is a belief that whatever you spend on a funeral, the spirit of the dead will contrive to reward you accordingly," said Charles Williams, general secretary of the Christian Assn. of Nigeria.
"In the south, we see death as a celebration, especially for the over-60s," said Tunji Okusanya, a coffin maker and undertaker in Lagos.
"We celebrate when people are born and graduate from school. We also celebrate the graduation to the unknown, sometimes with slaughtered cows, cabarets and big parties."
Okusanya's showroom--offering "caskets, the last to let you down"--is next to six others on bustling Odulami Street, where coffins range from the Spartan to the ornate, with velvet and pseudo-gold fittings.
"The cost of imported wood for coffins is rising. A cheap casket now costs 1,500 naira (about $150), a rise of about 15% from last December," undertaker Alhaji Ramos said.
Nigeria's military government says inflation is now about 12% a year, after reaching more than 40% a few years ago, a legacy of corruption under civilian rule in the early 1980s.
"People are still coming to us. There has been no letup in business," said Ramos, one of several Muslims catering to Christians and people of his own religion in Lagos.
In the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria, most people are buried at little cost in traditional Islamic fashion, wearing only death shrouds and without coffins.
But burial traditions are changing in the south, where undertakers say about 15% of their clients are Muslims.
Okusanya said some southern men, not wanting to place undue strains on relatives when they die, pay monthly for their own coffins. Others take out bank loans to help pay for funerals costing up to $30,000.
"These men do not want their kids to pay. Some of them even keep their coffins in their garages," he said.
A Nigerian banker said: "Hardly ever would a bank manager refuse a loan for a funeral, but he would want a breakdown of how it was to be used. More and more people are doing this.
"It is a cultural pressure, but many people don't realize they do not have to succumb to it."
While the death of a person who has reached 60 years is cause for celebration in a country where average life expectancy is just over 50 years, a younger death can be a time for sorrow.
"We do not charge anything to bury people under the age of 15, and all coffin makers have special prices for the poor, around 1,000 naira ($100)," Okusanya said.
U.N. sources say Nigeria has an infant mortality rate of 85 per 1,000, rising to 145 for children under 5 years.
In some rural areas of the south, which has an average per-capita income of less than $300, household heads often pay 10% of monthly earnings to local church leaders, partly to help pay for family funeral expenses.
"When a close relative dies, the church makes arrangements. But if you don't pay tithes and you die, your family has to clear the debt," said a southern Nigerian man who gave his name as David.
Explaining traditions behind funerals, Williams of the Christian Assn. said: "They are chances to pay the last respects to a fellow.
"If he was nothing while he was alive, this is a last chance to give him something. Even if he was the worst devil, he now becomes a sacred being."