/ 7 August 2022

Cost of funerals in South Africa a grave concern

Bleak: Many families, especially in poor areas, such as the rural Eastern Cape, are struggling to pay for funerals for their loved ones. Photos: Paul Botes

Days before the Pikes family from Hooggenoeg township in Makhanda, Eastern Cape, buried their son, they only had R200 for funeral costs. 

Thirty-five-year-old Christopher’s mother, Koekie Pikes, could only bury him two weeks after his death when local Samaritans gathered enough money to pay for a funeral. 

Christopher was admitted to hospital on 23 June. Although his cause of death, according to the hospital, was Covid-19, the family has no death certificate to confirm this as he had no birth certificate or ID number. 

Street committee member Dorothy Rooi said, “When you see the family, you just see pain. We desperately need help for them.” 

Rooi, who provides food parcels to the Pikes from her children’s grant money, says the family is the poorest in Hooggenoeg. 

The Pikes became known in the area after one of the walls of their house collapsed about four years ago. With no alternative accommodation, the family was homeless until they moved into the community hall. 

Despite numerous calls for help from the municipality, the house is still uninhabitable. 

It is in this community hall that the Pikes grieved the death of Christopher. 

But they are not alone. 

A day before Christopher’s burial, the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) managed to gather enough funds to cover it. 

“We all deserve dignity, even in death,” says Ayanda Kota, the spokesperson for UPM. 

Kota explains that the Pikes family’s request was one of at least six for help to arrange a burial in June and July. Fortunately for the Pikes, the Grahamstown Funeral Home agreed to do the burial before receiving any funds. 

It is also not the first request for help the funeral parlour has received, says owner Neville Moller. 

Moller sometimes gets R4 000 or R4 500 for a funeral. In some instances, people pay a deposit of R2 000, with the promise to settle the rest later, only “to never see them again”. 

The price of his funeral parlour’s simplest burials start from R6 000. General estimates nationwide show funerals can go up to R25 000 or more. Anything in between depends on personal preferences for additional extras. 

Cremation costs vary from R10 000 to R20 000. 

A relatively new form of burial, aquamation — an organic process combining water, temperature and alkalinity — will cost R12 500 to R16 000.

But even the cheapest option is out of reach for many. 

After many financial losses, Moller introduced a funeral plan he calls the “burial society”. He does not make a cent out of it — except when the family decides to upgrade the coffin — but it  shields him from taking significant losses. 

But just how many Pikes families are there in South Africa? 

Siyabulela Titi, owner of Titi Funerals, which operates in Mthatha, Tsolo, Mqanduli and Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, is also familiar with requests to do funerals for far less than the usual price and, in some cases, for nothing. 

“Many people are unemployed — there is a lot of poverty, especially after Covid-19 — they do not have money,” says Titi, explaining why some people do not have a funeral policy. “But that does not stop people from dying, regardless of whether you have money or not. 

“Sometimes you get requests from people who have nothing. They tell you they have connections and will pay, but you end up never receiving that money … so you end up [giving] it to the community.” 

At Titi Funerals, funerals start at about R7 000. This includes services such as transport, storage, a coffin and a gravestone. 

The general manager at Avbob, Pieter van der Westhuizen, says there has been a noticeable increase in people taking out funeral cover after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic because “many more people became aware of death”.

Although more people are considering it necessary to take out funeral cover, fewer people can afford it. 

“The bigger problem currently is the supportability, with the economy being tight and people struggling to make ends meet,” he says. “There is an increase in people who cannot afford policies.”

He points out that funeral coverage is the cheapest and most accessible form of insurance but that society places pressure on families to spend excessive amounts on funerals. “Cultures drive costs.”

In some cultures, funerals entail food, drinks and transport for dozens of attendees. 

Van der Westhuizen notes that, in some cases, people use savings intended for education to pay for funerals and others go into debt. 

Dez Yaetes, the manager director of Enriching Life Financial Services, which is an affiliate of Liberty, says: “Some cultures spend more money post-funeral than the funeral itself.”

The reality is that having to bury a relative is costly and sometimes unaffordable. 

The South African Constitution Act 108 enshrines the rights of all people in the country and “affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”, which means that municipalities must “protect and respect the dignity of living and dead persons”.

This right allows indigent and unclaimed bodies to receive a burial or cremation paid for by the state. 

Applications for this type of burial can be made at municipalities. 

In extreme cases, where it is evident that a family does not have the means to cover burial costs, “the municipality management and a contracted funeral service provider shall make arrangements to bury the dead body as a pauper”.  

but Titi argues that applying for state-funded funerals in his area is almost futile because corruption has led to municipalities going bankrupt. 

Titi asks: “If a person is in my fridge and the family has got nothing, then what am I going to do with that body? I cannot give the body to the family; that is the unethical thing to do. 

“Where are we going to put that person? You are not going to throw that person away. So, you sit with that problem.”

In the end, Titi says, he “pays it forwards” by using funds from the larger funerals he conducts to cover the costs of those where he receives little or no payment.  

“I cannot give the body to the family; that is the unethical thing to do. Where are we going to put that person? You are not going to throw that person away. So, you sit with that problem.”

In the end, he “pays it forward” by using funds from the larger funerals he conducts to cover those where he receives little or no payment, Titi says.