The unholy cost of a sacred death

Chartered accountant and commentator Khaya Sithole recently tweeted that he did the “most liberating thing” — refused to attend a family funeral where it was expected that two goats and a cow be contributed to feed the people “who beat my nephew to death”.

Sithole’s tweet struck a chord with his followers about a phenomenon familiar to black South Africans — the costs and obligations associated with burying loved ones.

As one follower put it: “Funerals are an unnecessary expense, nje. Everything not covered by the ‘funeral plan’ isn’t a necessity.”

The experience has led Sithole to call for an industry that better caters to the needs of black people’s funeral customs — which can include anything from extensive catering costs to transport and tents for mourners.

Burying people is big business. Avbob, one of the leading funeral homes in the country, said it can charge between R15 000 and R50 000 for a funeral.

But costs can rise “significantly” when additional services such as catering, tents and gazebo rentals, ablution facilities or transport for mourners are factored in, according to Avbob’s group communication manager, Marius du Plessis.

Pitika Ntuli, a well-known artist and cultural analyst, said a funeral is a very significant thing because “it is the bridge from the living into death”, and that transition is often celebrated in the form of a big ceremony.

Ntuli said it is usual for people to come together for a funeral and there are instances where individuals outside the family will contribute to it. But luxuries at funerals, such as limousines, have to do with “class” and people showing off their “status”, he said.

Funeral policies are ubiquitous in South Africa. Along with banks and insurers, it seems that everyone, from Kaizer Chiefs to cellphone giant Vodacom, offers funeral cover.

But Sithole said that funeral policies are not structured for the way that black people’s funerals are conducted. They focus on the “core fixed costs” such as coffins, he said.

“I think we could try and perhaps have a comprehensive funeral cover, where it perhaps [has] a number of people who are projected to attend in order to cover the catering costs,” he said

Burial societies are another way for people to finance funerals.

Lethabo Mokoena is the secretary of the Brotherhood Burial Society in Daveyton in Ekurhuleni municipality, which was started by a group of friends in March 2015.

“In the township it’s nothing new, it’s an old concept — but one of our friends had a funeral at home and, at the time, he did not have enough money to contribute towards the funeral,” he said.

“At the time it dawned on us that we have to organise ourselves, because we are always chilling together; so it made sense for us to organise something that is going to benefit all of us.”

The group of men, aged between 28 and 32, meet on the first Sunday of every month and they each contribute R250. The society then pays the total amount over to 21st Century Life, which offers a range of funeral options and insurance.

Members can choose between receiving a payout of R20 000 for a spouse and R15 000 for a dependant or assistance with the burial, instead of receiving cash.

Mokoena said that even if there is a fixed payment from an insurance company or a burial society, black people tend to spend their own money on top of that.

“You cannot say how much a funeral will cost because, with black families, how a funeral works is that the funeral cover will pay out, but then another aunt will say: ‘I will buy the flowers’ and the rich uncle will say: ‘I will buy the meat.’ So the whole family comes to contribute — so you cannot say: ‘In the last funeral we spent R50 000.’

“But I know that it’s quite expensive, hence the costs are shared,” he said.

Mokoena said there is an obsession among black people about how a funeral looks, and this is something worth interrogating.

“Death is a sacred thing for us as black people. But it has become such a big expense for us because of the way our community is set up. We are constantly worrying what people will say if we did not have money for tea or other things … Why are we fixated with death — and not only that, but with how it looks?”

He says it does not help that they are “constantly bombarded” with advertisements on television for funeral cover.

“If you bunk school or work, you will constantly be seeing Desmond Dube all day on your screen selling you funeral cover. On the advertisement he keeps on saying ‘a decent funeral’. What is a decent funeral?

“But I guess people want their funerals to reflect the type of life they lived.”

He said one of his friends cousins said he couldn’t live well and then have a “shady” funeral, and that “my funeral has to be bougie [bourgeois] because I am bougie”.

Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the M&G.

Tshegofatso Mathe
Tshegofatso Mathe is a financial trainee journalist at the Mail & Guardian

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