By Gonzalo Fuentes and John Irish
JUSSEY / PARIS (Reuters) – Two carriers load their trucks with what is quickly becoming a precious commodity in France as the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc – coffins.
While most businesses have shut down as part of a national lockdown to slow the spread of the disease, the coffin factory in the sleepy town of Jussey in northeastern France, can barely follow orders.
France confirmed nearly 60,000 cases of coronavirus and, on Friday 5,537 deaths, the fourth highest count in the world.
“Given what is going on, the production rate is increasing by 50 coffins per day,” Emmanuel Garret, director of the OGF factory, told Reuters. “We are going from 360 to 410.”
The group, which also has a factory near the Alps in eastern France, produces around 144,000 coffins per year, making it the country’s leading producer.
The Jussey factory makes 80,000 oak and pine coffins for the French market. There is no shortage of wood as there is approximately 60 square kilometers of forest in the adjacent area.
The city of only 1,600 inhabitants is located between Paris and eastern France, regions at the epicenter of the epidemic which account for more than half of the death toll in the country.
“It is clear that in terms of activity, this is where demand is now the strongest,” said Garret.
Inside the plant, the 120 beaver employees assemble coffins, which generally sell for between 700 euros ($ 756) and 5,000 euros each.
This will change as increasing demand has pushed the plant to focus on simpler units, said Garret.
By keeping a safe distance and regularly disinfecting the workspace, employees all wear masks. The company hired local seamstresses to make them due to a chronic shortage caused by the global pandemic.
As conveyor belts spin and robots finish vernissage in Jussey, more than 300 km (186 miles) from Paris, preparations are underway for a wave of deaths with more than 2,200 people on life support in regional hospitals .
On Friday, at the Rungis food market, the largest in Europe, local authorities transformed a hall into a mortuary to accommodate for the last time 1,000 coffins and related rooms allowing families to say goodbye to their loved ones.
“It’s not a video game, it’s reality,” said Paris police chief Didier Lallement. The makeshift morgue had to make sure there was capacity if needed, he added.
Nathalie Vounikoglou, saleswoman for Bernier, one of five casket distributors in the Paris region, said that demand for funeral homes has jumped 20% in the past two weeks.
“We occasionally run out of low-end standard-size models because there are no more ceremonies and families therefore opt for the cheaper ones,” she said.
Some nursing homes and hospitals do not want to keep the bodies of coronavirus patients, Vounikoglou said, which means there must be a faster turnaround.
Funeral homes order coffins with one day’s notice rather than the previous four or five, for fear they won’t measure up.
“For the moment, we are restocking the next morning,” said Vounikoglou.
(Additional report by Noemie Olive and Tangi Salaun; Edition by Gareth Jones)