/ 8 June 2020

Families struggle with funerals under lockdown

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Families have found the cultural cost of burying their loved ones under lockdown difficult to bear, but the financial costs have reduced. (Paul Botes/M&G)

Funerals for black people are usually large gatherings that involve local residents, immediate and extended family members, colleagues and friends and can span from the day the news of the death is announced until the day the person is buried. But the Covid-19 regulations have forced families and parlours to find new ways of holding funerals. 

Under the level 3 lockdown rules only 50 people can attend a burial, night vigils are banned and physical distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 must be observed. You may travel to attend a funeral if you are a partner, child, child-in-law, parent, sibling and grandparent and you need a permit.

Ausi Kedibone Phela*, whose sister died in March, said only immediate family members were involved in the funeral. Her family did not even erect a huge tent in their yard, which pre-Covid-19 they would have done for the numerous people who would have come to pay their respects. 

There was no night vigil with singing and sermons to comfort the bereaved. Instead Phela said the family had to pray among themselves, adding that “the painful part is her big family could not all go to the cemetery at the same time”.

But, she said, “we saved [money] as compared to a normal funeral”. 

Phela’s family spent about R15 000 mostly on food, but this excluded the cost of the funeral parlour’s services such as providing a casket and chairs. 

Simphiwe Malaza said local residents stayed away from his mother’s funeral last month — not because of the lockdown regulations but because they feared she died of Covid-19. She didn’t. 

Malaza said it was difficult to adhere to the law while also trying to get enough money to pay for the funeral. They used his father’s funeral cover and family members made contributions. 

Buying food was difficult because he did not know how many people would attend. The family spent about R30 000 on food and hiring a tent.

“I wasted my money because people kept on saying ‘we won’t eat there because there is conorana’,” said Malaza.

He said the law had hung over him; he had worried about how he would regulate the number of people at the funeral because he feared being arrested if they were found to have broken the law. 

According to Liberty Insurance, in 2018 the average cost of a funeral ranged from R50 000 to R250 000 and was increasing year on year by about 12%.

During the pandemic funeral service companies have had to provide sanitisers and face masks.   

Avbob, one of the country’s well-known funeral parlours, said it has seen people spending less on funerals during the lockdown, specifically under levels five and four. But it believes buying patterns might change under level three, because most services and companies have now opened such as those hiring tents and cooking equipment. 

“There have been a lot of additional costs that the funeral service companies incurred in the past number of months, as much more personal protective equipment was required in terms of the regulations,” said Avbob’s group communication manager, Marius du Plessis.

As with other industries, funeral parlours are leaning towards technology to conduct funerals and involve as many people as possible. Du Plessis said Avbob introduced live streaming of funerals to accommodate those who cannot attend. 

Broodie Funeral Parlour, which is known for organising opulent funerals, is doing a similar thing by placing a television set in people’s homes. This route was chosen because not everyone has a smartphone or a laptop and may not be able to afford data.

Broodie Morongwa, the parlour’s founder, said they have tried to move the arrangement of a funeral online to limit the number of people coming to the parlour. 

In terms of costs, she said most of her clients are opting for luxury caskets, thus maintaining costs at the levels seen before the lockdown. 

“It [Covid-19] has not affected the business as such. May and June we experienced an uptick in funerals. With the new strategy that we are using at our parlour, it also increased the revenue because we came with different things [such as television and luxurious caskets] to attract families,” she said.

Last year, artist and cultural analyst Professor Pitika Ntuli told the M&G that a funeral is significant because “it is the bridge from the living into death”, and that transition is often celebrated in the form of a big ceremony.

Some families are able to celebrate because they pool money through contributing to stokvels and buying funeral covers, as well as donations from family members. 

Lindi Monyae, managing executive for Liberty’s emerging consumer market section, said funeral costs may have come down, possibly only temporarily. But the benefit payout from a policy remains unchanged and therefore so do the premiums. 

Sanlam’s Gavin Downard said a similar thing, adding that the number of funeral claims they paid so far is  similar to the same period last year.

Monyae said they believe that as the number of infections increase, the death rate could rise, which would lead to an increase in claims in the second half of the year.

Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian