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Lykwa Sends Chills Down the Old Spine

Spotted! A lykwa (pronounced LAKE-vaw) in De Oude Kerk museum, off Church St. in Riebeek Kasteel (map), in the Swartland region of the Cape Winelands.

What on Earth is it? It’s a horse-drawn hearse – hence its rather grim appearance. In Afrikaans, lyk means “body”, and wa means “wagon”. According to locals, the son of the last person to be carried to her grave in this “bodywagon” is still alive and kicking in the Riebeek Valley.

This particular lykwa saw the most action during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which ravaged most of the world, not excepting South Africa. The story goes that either the valley’s coffinmaker was struck dead during the outbreak, or he simply ran out of wood – either way, at one stage during that dark period, the town was down to its last coffin. But the bodies kept piling up. The lykwa was loaded, taken to church for a funeral, then to the graveyard for a burial – whereupon the body, wrapped in shrouds, was dumped coffinless into its grave, and the coffin reused for the next in line. Grim, I tell you!