On an average Saturday, there are 80 to 90 funerals held at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto. More during the winter, reckons the guard at the gate.
As one funeral group enters, another leaves in a convoy that includes cars and two Putco buses filled with people just released from memorial services. From any one funeral, the marquee, buses and crowd of at least two others are plainly visible. And at every funeral the insignia of a different undertaker is painted on to the door of the hearse parked at the gravesite.
“There is lots of competition among undertaker companies. They are trying to outdo each other with speakers and cars,” said Pule Molabatsi, a mourner who came to pay his last respects to a neighbour.
“These are not like white funerals where people are invited,” said Molabatsi. “People from the community are expected to come to the cemetery. Where people can’t afford it, the community clubs together and burial societies step in to help with the costs.”
There are currently more than 100 000 burial societies in South Africa, according to Zulu Ratswana, general secretary of the Burial Society of South Africa, citing research conducted by the insurance sector education and training authority. A funeral can cost about R15 000, Ratswana said.
“The most expensive items are the coffin and the cow that must be slaughtered. A coffin costs R5 000, on average, and the cow about R6 000. Then there is the cost of feeding the people who come for the funeral.”
Funeral insurance policies go a long way towards covering the high cost. Although individuals can hold insurance policies, burial societies have specially designed insurance products so that members who make regular contributions can benefit from the cover.
When all is added up, a large amount of money changes hands on a regular basis. In the most recent calculation, funeral insurance contributed R4.9-billion to – and made up 1.7% of – the income of the long-term insurance industry, said Tembisa Marele, communications specialist at the Financial Services Board. This is in addition to a multitude of unlicensed insurance providers, many of which combine undertaker services and contribute to the lower end of the market.
With insurance cover, paupers are turned into princes in death. Research has shown that funeral costs weigh heavily on household funds.
Anxiety and depression
“A large amount is spent on animals to sacrifice, other food and on coffins. A quarter of the households borrow money, mostly from moneylenders at extremely high interest rates, in order to pay for the funeral costs.
“Households have fewer assets and report higher levels of poverty for many years after a death and this can be linked to the cost of the funeral, particularly when money was borrowed. We have found that children in households that experienced a death and had to pay for the funeral are less likely to be enrolled in school, and that adults in the household are more likely to show symptoms of anxiety and depression, and to report money problems.”
Efforts are under way to break the stranglehold of funeral costs. The Burial Society of South Africa was formed in 2010 as an umbrella body for burial societies across South Africa. “We are trying to say to people not to focus so much on death. It sometimes comes in 40 or 50 years, and who is going to look after the families in the meantime?” said Ratswana.
He said it was a history of deprivation that made rites of death so important. “Over time, black people focused more on burials also because of the history and lack of education because it didn’t give us things to improve our lives.”
Erik Bähre, assistant professor at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at the University of Leiden says, “The large expenditure on funerals is not traditional. Among the Xhosa, funerals usually were modest. Only recently did funerals become so expensive, probably since the 1980s. By then, some funerals became important public events in the struggle against apartheid. Comrades used – and some people that I interviewed said abused – funerals as an occasion to struggle against the atrocities of the apartheid regime. This made funerals much more than the burial of a bereaved relative, neighbour, or friend. At these funerals, public performance became more important.
“Although many feel that it is a problem to spend so much money on funerals, they also say that they cannot do anything about it. The main reason is that they are worried about their reputation. They are worried that neighbours might say that they neglected the deceased. The bereaved family is concerned about malicious gossip and that people will say that they are stingy, that they are irresponsible by not putting money aside for the funeral, or some might even say that they never really cared for the deceased.”
The trend shows no signs of abating, leaving cemetery land at a premium. There is limited land for cemeteries; municipalities, which are responsible for maintaining them, are hard-pressed to find space.
A source from the City of Johannesburg, who asked not to be named, said there was plenty of “political pressure” on the city to make land available for burial. “In Alexandra township, for example, an election can be won or lost on the basis of burial space,” she said.
Although there is no crisis of space yet, it is suggested that overcrowding is more pronounced in black townships, where the concentration of people and the death rate are highest.
Funerals are, apparently, also going green. Wiesenhof Legacy Parks is a burial site based in Stellenbosch. Its chief executive, Werner Fouche, said that preserving nature is an imperative and their grave markers are as subtle as possible; with a plaque that barely protrudes from the ground as the most conspicuous. Another option is to use a tree as a grave marker.
“Instead of a tombstone, we can plant a tree on the grave and it becomes a living memorial. It is still a new concept,” said Fouche. Although an emphasis is placed on reducing the sinisterness, it is hardly a cheap burial option. Burials cost upwards of R28 000, and scattering ashes over the soil costs R6 000.
Clearly, when it comes to funerals, no effort is spared to comfort the living. But perhaps this is just the way it is. As the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: “He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present than the living man.”