Michel Homsi, the last craftsman building handmade coffins in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, works at his shop
Michel Homsi, the last craftsman building handmade coffins in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, works at his shop © IBRAHIM CHALHOUB - AFP
Michel Homsi, the last craftsman building handmade coffins in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, works at his shop
Ibrahim Chalhoub, AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Lack of customers final nail for Lebanon coffin maker

In a tiny workshop in Lebanon's Tripoli, coffin maker Michel Homsi takes a drag on a cigarette, surrounded by his carefully crafted handiwork, waiting for customers that never seem to arrive.

He hasn't sold one of his handmade wooden caskets in a year, due to competition from machine-made coffins but also to dwindling numbers of Christians in the northern port city.

Most of Tripoli's residents are Muslims, who are buried in a simple shroud and have no need for Homsi's talents.

And most of the Christians he once catered to have left the city in waves, fleeing first the country's 1975-1990 civil war, and then sporadic violence between local neighbourhoods.

"The last people who bought a coffin from me a year ago got it for their mum, who was living here," Homsi told AFP, sitting in the sole chair in his dusty workshop.

"After buying it, they left and haven't come back."

Homsi began making wooden coffins in 1964, following in the footsteps of his father, though his first job was in the workshop of a competitor.

He was inspired early on by a woodwork teacher and went into the coffin making business while just a teenager.

After three years at a rival workshop, he joined his father's business in the Zahriyeh district, at the time a mixed neighbourhood of different sects.

Initially, business was brisk, with the father-son pair making four or five coffins a month.

The handmade caskets sold for anything from $100 for the simplest kind to thousands of dollars for more elaborate options.

It took time for him to convince his father that he was up to the trade.

"When I first started working with him he wouldn't let me touch anything, he just asked me to organise tools," said Homsi, 65.

"But when he got tired I started working with my hands, and he liked my work."

"My father didn't teach me about coffins, but he taught me to love wood."

- 'Soft like silk' -

Homsi's passion is evident in the work he continues to do, despite the dearth of customers.

He works meticulously with pieces purchased from local wood wholesalers, cutting each to size with a handsaw before smoothing it to a fine finish.

"Put your hand on the wood and feel how rough it is," he says before sanding it down. "Now feel it and see how it's become soft like silk."

He nails the parts together and varnishes them, using several brushes to make sure every last spot is covered.

The final step is to add the cloth lining inside. But that process waits until a buyer has chosen the casket, so nowadays Homsi is surrounded by unlined coffins.

It takes him anywhere from three days to a week to finish a coffin, but with so little demand, these days he takes his time and works on one for up to a month.

Coffin making is virtually the only trade Homsi has ever known.

He and his father worked throughout the early years of the civil war that erupted in 1975.

But in 1982, when the fearsome Sunni Islamic Unification Movement militia began targeting Christians, Homsi decided to flee.

He moved to Germany and worked as a car mechanic for eight months, but returned home after learning his mother was ill.

"I spent everything I had earned in Germany so she could get well, and thank God, she did," he says.

Back in Tripoli, Homsi resumed making coffins with his father, but business had already started to dwindle as local Christians fled.

By the end of the war in 1990, Homsi was making just one coffin a month and was forced to take up a cleaning job on the side to make ends meet for his wife and two children.

- No new customers -

Even peacetime brought no new customers for Homsi.

Many Christians who had left failed to return, while others fled sporadic bouts of violence between the Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tebbaneh neighbourhoods, near to Homsi's district, or felt it was now too dangerous to come to his workshop.

While no official figures exist for the number of Christians in Tripoli, they made up just 22,000 of around 200,000 registered voters in the city in 2010, of which only 4,500 cast a ballot.

Even that figure may overstate the number of Christians who actually live there. Lebanese voters are registered for life in the district where they were born, even if they move later on.

Some of those who voted in Tripoli may have lived elsewhere for decades.

It's a depressing turn of affairs for Homsi, who has decided not to teach his son his craft.

Passersby say hello, but don't stop in, and he cancelled his phone line after being unable to pay his bills.

"At church, people talk to me and say hello to me but nobody stands near me for more than a minute," he says.

"Maybe they think I'm close to death or that their life will get shorter if they talk to me."

But despite the difficult prospects, Homsi says he plans to stay open, waiting for clients.

"Where would I go? Maybe work will come at some point. I'm waiting. Either I work or I die."

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