Dozens of Samoan children have died of measles. So New Zealanders are sending child-size coffins.

By

Miriam Berger 

Dec. 8, 2019 at 1:00 a.m. GMT+13

A 7-month-old receives a vitamin A supplement on Dec. 4 at the Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital in Apia, Samoa. A deficiency of vitamin A is a risk factor for the highly contagious illness. (Allan Stephen/UNICEF/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

The call came from a Samoan in Auckland, New Zealand, by way of the man’s father, an undertaker in Samoa: They needed children’s caskets.

So Ron Wattam of the Kiwi Coffin Club sprang into action.

The 77-year-old usually joins about 20 to 25 other retirees in Rotorua, in northern New Zealand, every Wednesday to craft coffins for themselves and as charity for the community. Now they are working around the clock to prepare 24 coffins for Samoa.

The majority of the coffins are for babies and children, reflecting the death toll in Samoa’s measles outbreak: Most of the 63 who have died were younger than 4.

If the U.S. had Samoa’s current level of measles cases, there would now be more than 7 million infected Americans

So the Kiwi Coffin Club is cutting, gluing, lining and painting six coffins fitted for victims ages 1 month to 18 months; four for those up to 5 years old; and 10 for those up to 12 years old, Wattam said.

The two for teens and two for adults are largely for packing purposes, so they can carefully stack each casket into the other, explained Wattam. A company in Auckland has agreed to send them to Samoa.

There’s a Kiwi tradition of building and customizing DIY coffins. These off-brand coffins cost far less than funeral home offerings, while providing people with a cathartic way to deal with the inevitability of death or to cope with the loss of a loved one.

“We are here to help people in need,” Wattam said of his group, which is taking on the first charity project it’s done outside New Zealand.

Babies and children have been the hardest-hit by Samoa’s measles outbreak, as the small Pacific island nation has rushed to vaccinate children and pregnant women, populations that are extremely vulnerable to infection.

The epidemic has upended all areas of life. Perhaps nothing captures the scale of the tragedy more than the sudden demand for child-size coffins.

Shane Tuilagi, 27, is the attorney for his family’s funeral home in Apia, the capital of Samoa.

He told The Washington Post that the funeral home had just received a new batch of coffins, having had an increase in demand since the epidemic took off in November. Coffins for adults have often come from abroad, from places such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States, while children’s coffins have been made by builders in Samoa, he explained.

So far, his family’s business has provided more than 20 coffins for measles victims. It had just made a coffin for the latest victim, Tuilagi said. Workers had to labor on it throughout the night so it would be ready in time for the funeral.

 

After the 2009 tsunami, the Samoan government paid for coffins for the dead. Now, some families of the stricken are struggling to afford them for their children, Tuilagi said.

When Tuilagi’s family started their funeral home more 20 years ago, coffins weren’t very common. Instead, Samoan families buried their dead straightaway in holes they dug, sometimes in front of homes. Then came the morgue and coffins from abroad and new funeral practices, one of just many shifts in Samoan society in recent decades.

 

Except now, said Tuilagi, some grief-stricken families are simply wrapping their little loved ones in a cloth and burying them in the ground, harking back to Samoa’s traditional ways.

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