Slice of Life: I’ve been digging graves since I was a teen – death has given me a shot at life


I’ve been burying people since I was 13. I was in school but I worked over weekends, helping undertakers in Soweto. We prepared graves, cleaning the sand so they could be ready for the funeral.

It’s hard in winter time: the tents blow over and you become cold. But preparing graves came into my veins. 

My grandfather’s death led me here. He was the family breadwinner and, when he died, there wasn’t enough money for school. Through this work, I put myself through high school.

My grandfather died after an illness. I was the first-born grandchild to him. He gave me everything, told me stories — I was his right hand. He’s buried in Avalon cemetery in Soweto, alongside many struggle activists. Like them, he is a hero. 

When I began work, it was in the graves. Before you can be a professional undertaker, you must start in the graves to make sure they are ready to receive the bodies. 

I kept working until I could become a funeral director. I got my licence and pulled up my socks, so now I can drive the hearse and deliver the coffins. 

It can be hard when you have a child’s coffin in the hearse. I’ve got a small baby, so I feel it. 

But I won’t forget when I buried Nkosi Johnson. He was 12 years old. His coffin was one metre long. A kid with HIV. When we closed his grave, all I could think was how a disease could take a child who doesn’t know anything about it. 

The people who do this job are god-sent; they are angels. Many people are too scared to do it. I was scared too, but now I’m a real funeral director. That makes me proud. — Aaron Motloung (36), as told to Ra’eesa Pather

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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