By Sheree Russouw
Johannesburg City Parks has endorsed a novel coffin which not only takes up two-thirds less space than regular coffins, but is also theft-proof.
This week the team of young inventors who developed the pyramid-shaped coffin won R30 000 when they came second in the National Student Innovation competition at Wits University.
The wooden theft-proof coffin turns magenta if it is illegally removed from the earth, indicating it is "second-hand". It uses a chemical indicator sensitive to body odours, which changes the colour of the wood as the body decomposes inside it.
This will make it easier to detect if the coffin is stolen, helping to stop corrupt undertakers from "making a killing" by stealing expensive coffins from the dead, said Paseka Hlatshwayo, the lead inventor behind Lebone Coffins.
"During my research I realised that the most expensive coffins are often stolen by undertakers, especially in Avalon and Vosloorus," he said. "They dig up the coffins and remove the bodies. Then they clean the coffins and re-sell them to the public. The dead who are removed are lucky if they even get reburied in a coffin."
The shape of the new coffin also means that the dead will be buried in a squatting position, which was historically reserved for royalty and the upper class in ancient, African cultures, and This means that it uses up to 66 percent less space than a conventional coffin.
Now the government and burial authorities are looking at the invention with interest, as it could be a way to help relieve South Africa's cramped cemeteries.
Alan Buff, the acting general manager of cemeteries at City Parks, applauded the "unique design" of the coffin and said it would help save "considerable space" in Johannesburg's cemeteries.
"When their coffins are ready they must definitely come to us," said Buff. "But it remains to be seen whether enough South Africans will accept it."
Hlatshwayo said he expected "huge demand" from rural communities who were most likely to identify with the ancient burial custom, while it was a matter of "changing perceptions through aggressive marketing" in urban areas.
A coffin for use by the mass market will cost around R1 500, while the most expensive is expected to cost around R10 000.