There are several stores in the capital who sell coffins, shrouds, and everything else needed for funeral rites. Although it is a business for the store owners, they still have empathy for the buyers and the ones who have passed away
Humayun was only 13 years old when he started learning the business with his brother-in-law. It has been 27 years since then, and Humayun is still in that seven by five feet store named "Shesh Biday Store" in Mirpur.
"Someone's death keeps us alive. You never know when you will sell something, but you cannot pray for more sales because then someone will have to die for that," he said.
There are several stores in the capital like this. Biday Bela Store, Al Bida Store, Shesh Biday Store- the stores are named differently, but they all mean the same thing- "Farewell Store". They are here for the last shopping of your life.
These stores can be found in almost every area of the capital. Mirpur-10 has an entire cluster of them. You can also find some of these stores in Katabon, Khilgaon, Mogbazar, Jatrabari, Uttara and Mohammadpur.
Md Arman Mia has been doing the business for the last 13 years. He has two stores named "Al Bida Store" in the Mirpur-10 area.
Arman Mia said, "It is a strange business. The person in front of you is crying. But still, you have to deal with him/her. Some will bargain, some will not. You will cry, but you will have to take money from them."
According to Arman Mia, the way people shop tells a lot about their love for the dead person. Generally, those who love the dead do not bargain that much.
And the people who bargain a lot, you understand that he/she is not closely related to the dead. It is the driver or the caretaker who tends to shop this way.
Usually it is the men who shop here. But the store owners have noticed that for the last couple of years, women are also seen in the death merchant's alley, crying and shopping for their loved ones.
According to Arman Mia, it is almost like adorning the dead for their last journey towards the afterlife, just like dear ones adorn a bride!
The most important thing is the white shroud, commonly known as "kafan". It is the cloth that is used to cover the body after it is bathed and cleaned. It varies for men, women, and children.
Generally, women need more fabric than men and children. According to the Shariah, women are covered with five fabric pieces - one dress, one "sina band" or the fabric to cover the chest, one headcover and two shawls. For men, it is three pieces of fabric- two shawls and a dress.
As a result, the price varies. The price for women's shrouds starts from Tk1,500 up to Tk4,200, and for men's shrouds, the price starts from Tk1,200 up to Tk4,000.
The quality of the fabric also matters. But not everyone can afford to buy a full set of the shroud.
Md Jahangir Alam, another store owner informed us that sometimes young boys from orphanages or a day labourer's son come with only half of the total price.
He said, "We do not refuse anyone. It is like an unwritten, unspoken rule of ours that if anyone is incapable of affording the total price, we still give him or her the shroud."
Arman Mia believes it is a way Allah tests him.
He said, "I never regret giving the shroud to a destitute at a much lower price. Because I believe Allah will give me more in Akhirah. It is a win-win situation for me."
After the shroud, there are other things to buy - coffin, tea leaves, rosewater, collyrium, attar or essence of flowers etc. They also sell toothpicks to clean the dirt from the teeth and nails.
You can find tissue papers to clean the faecal dirt as well. You will find haleem seeds to spread over the grave, these will grow and cover the grave with fresh green grass.
The coffin is needed when the body is taken to a distant place. People who die in hospitals, away from their homeland, and who cannot afford air-conditioned ambulances, their relatives buy these coffins to carry the body.
During the lockdown period, the business was in a bad shape because of travel restrictions. Family members of the deceased had a hard time taking the body out of Dhaka.
The coffins are made five to six feet in length for adults, and for children, these are generally two to three feet. These coffins sell for Tk1,100 to Tk1,500, depending on the size and the quality of the wood.
Md Bashar owns a coffin making business in Mohammadpur. His factory produces 1,500 to 2,000 coffins a year. Per piece sells for Tk1,050 to Tk1,100 in the wholesale market.
They are mostly made with Monkey Jack, commonly known as chapalish and rain tree wood. These are collected from Kamrangir Char where wood from all over the country come to the capital through the riverway.
There are six or seven other people like Md Bashar who have this business of making coffins in the capital.
Most of the time, tea leaves are placed in the coffin to soak up all the moisture from the body. These are not the ones we use to make tea; these are more like the leftovers.
In the death merchant valley, these are called "vusha" or "dash". The tea leaves are sold for Tk40 to Tk50 per kg. For every dead body, you need four to five kg of these.
Other than shrouds and tea leaves, you need fragrances as well. They have packages - in a Tk200 packet, you will have a bottle of rosewater, one small vial of attar, toothpicks, tissue paper, cotton, haleem seeds, incense sticks, one small bar of soap and one blade. But if you want, you can buy these things separately and in bulk as well.
The collyrium, commonly known as "surma", is a traditional eye makeup similar to kohl, and it is considered auspicious to apply it on the dead. It is priced Tk20 to Tk30 per 100 grams.
They are generally imported from the Middle East. But mostly they are bought from the wholesale market in Chawkbazar.
Although it is a precarious business, it is profitable in a sense. According to Arman Mia, it is a never-ending business.
Whether there is a pandemic or not, people will always die. So there will always be a market.
He said, "It is an irony for us. Sometimes we do not have business for six to seven days. But if you look at it from another perspective, no one steals from our shops. No one wants to betray us. Even if they cannot pay the full price right when they are buying, they will return it someday. Because people feel if they betray us here in this world, they will have to pay the price in the afterlife."
The business generally works well during Ramadan and in the summer season. Jahangir Alam thinks Allah has some blessing over mankind, that is why more people die during the month of Ramadan.
But Arman Mia has a more scientific way of seeing things. According to him, in the summer season more people die of heart attacks and strokes. That is why they have more sales during this time.
But why get involved in this business which has so much uncertainty? Jahangir Alam had a perfect answer for that. To him, it is like an addiction.
He said, "When a person comes to you crying, sits in your shop, trying to find some solace, you are bound to feel empathetic. To comfort them feels good."
Arman Mia became emotional while talking about the business. To him, it is a self-realisation process.
He said, "I will have to die someday just like everyone else. I do not know how, maybe I will not even be blessed with a grave or a kafan. That is what I remind myself all the time. Lucky are those who have someone to shop for them, cry for them, bathe and cover them with a kafan, and pray for them. With every sale, with every body I adorn, I feel like I am closer to God. He is watching me."
The store-owners feel there should be a union that would at least monitor their work. They feel a fund could be formed that would pay for the needy ones, who do not have enough to buy things for funeral rites.
Still, it is almost a social responsibility for these shop owners. Humayun said, "There will be people to celebrate birth, to welcome a new life in the world. But just like arrival, departure is a natural course that comes with life. And that is what we do, to prepare you for your last journey."