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The Rediff Special/M D Riti in Bangalore
September 28, 2004
Whenever he heard that someone had died, John George Snaize, Jr, would put on his hat and call on the bereaved.
He was not just being polite; he also wanted to get an order for a coffin.
Now his grandson Anil Makhija operates in a completely different environment of refrigerated glass caskets and cut-throat competition.
"Death had a certain dignity in the good old days," says his mother and business partner Margaret. "Clients never, for example, bargained over the price of coffins, or asked us if we could help organise grand post-burial meals and wakes right in the cemeteries."
Anil belongs to the fifth generation of Bangalore's Snaize family, which has been in the business of making coffins for 130 years.
Snaize Brothers is still doing well, with a turnover of Rs 15-20 lakh a year and a profit margin of almost 40 per cent.
The business operates from the Makhija family home on Norris Road.
For close to a century, Snaize Brothers was right in the middle of the upmarket commercial area of Brigade Road. Now there is a huge shopping mall there called Mota Arcade.
The family members have literally taken their coffins home.
One wing of the house, which is one of the city's stately old bungalows with a huge garden, is devoted to the business.
Small carpenters working on contract make the coffins.
Snaize Brothers was started in 1873 at N-159, Brigade Road, by Anil's great-great-grandmother Clarissa, who moved to Bangalore with her seven children after she was widowed.
Clarissa first tried her hand at the shoe business and failed miserably before deciding to enter the coffin business.
Her first big client was the British Army. The military garrison commander at the time told her that she could make coffins for soldiers who died when posted in Bangalore.
John George Snaize, one of her sons, inherited the business.
Margaret remembers her father putting on his hat whenever he heard of a death and going across to the home of the bereaved to measure the body and book the order.
In those days, she says, every coffin was custom-made. "They needed 24 hours to deliver a coffin."
From her father John George, Jr, the business went to Margaret's mother Winifred and her brother Joseph Andrews.
She too inherited a share of it. Now that her brother and mother are dead, Margaret runs the business with her husband Prabhu Makhija, who retired from the armed forces, and son Anil, who tried managing a tea estate before joining the family business.
Earlier, clients who suffered a bereavement simply contacted Snaize Brothers, who handled everything until the body was safely underground.
Now churches run their own cemeteries and things like digging graves and placing coffins become their responsibility.
The firm also rents out hearses – it has four – at Rs 1,000 or Rs 2,000 per journey. Earlier, it had vintage American cars, made especially for the firm by Dodge Brothers in 1939. Even before that, it had horse-drawn hearses.
Maruti vans and Tata Estates have now replaced these exotic vehicles. But the hearses always have elegant floral decorations.
Snaize Brothers also does church decorations for funerals.
The firm has four refrigerated glass caskets to preserve a body for viewing. These caskets are maintained well and cost Rs 2,000 for a 24 hour period. The firm does not hire them out for more than 48 hours, as it believes that bodies cannot be preserved well in these caskets longer than that.
Anil usually accompanies his technicians when they set up these units in clients' residences. He says he never feels squeamish about the work, as he has literally grown up around corpses. "Death is just another dimension of life."
Not many drivers feel this way, however, so at times the family has trouble retaining them. But there are some people who have worked with Snaize Brothers for close to 50 years now.
The refrigerated caskets are kept in sheds behind the home. The hearses are either parked in garages or in the driveway, ready to be driven off at short notice.
The firm always has about 40 wooden coffins in stock, of all sizes and price ranges. The cheapest costs Rs 2,000.
"Many people ask us whether we are afraid to store our coffins in the same premises, and whether we are bothered by ghosts," laughs Margaret. "People have the strangest notions about this business."
Wooden caskets, which are quite popular abroad, are yet to find favour in Bangalore. This could also be because they are far more expensive, the cheapest being around Rs 7,000.
Besides, in Indian cemeteries, graves are usually standard size. Gravediggers have to be asked to dig wider and deeper to accommodate wooden coffins. "Besides, ecologists are not for it, as these caskets require a lot more wood," says Margaret.
The firm has deliberately not gone hi-tech. But it does make sealed lead coffins for air transportation of corpses.
One area of business that is gaining momentum is that of making plaques and memorials. These need not be just tombstones or headstones, but also foundation plaques.
Snaize Brothers specialises in placing photographic images on granite, and all types of engraving, from hand to computerised.
Anil only wishes the business would be exempted from sales tax.
Headline Image: Rahil Shaikh