Extravagant ceremonies for the dead ruin families financially, writes Wynona Latham
Few trends illustrate South Africans’ growing culture of consumerism than the rising costs of death. At a time when families are already under great stress, escalating funeral expenses are pushing families further into debt.
While tradition is often cited as the reason for the expenditure, there is a growing call for people to revert to values-driven mourning practices from what is increasingly becoming a show of possessions.
Research by the Insurance Sector Education and Training Authority shows that the funeral sector is a R5 billion industry. On any given weekend, funeral processions around the country range from basic to high-cost options that include rented cars, catered refreshments, designer clothes and top-of-the-range coffins; some of which cost up to R50 000.
Many South Africans struggle with debt incurred from high funeral spending. Archie Sithole, a Johannesburg man whose brother-in-law died in May 2013, has first-hand experience of the how the deceased’s stature can impact on funeral costs.
“It is all about who has died,” he said.
His brother-in-law was well-liked in his community and when he died, approximately 1000 people arrived at his memorial and the funeral. The large number of people created a particular set of problems for the family as they were expected to organise and feed all the relatives and friends.
“We were lucky that he had a funeral scheme, however it was only R8000 for a funeral of over 1000 people” Sithole said.
The family relied on donations from its members to fill the gap. The money was used to buy the cow and chickens for slaughter, a tent and coffin, and to rent space for the memorial and for catering.
The logistics of the funeral resulted in further costs.
“In African culture, the body must be buried within five to seven days but the longer it takes, the more it costs,” said Sithole.
He described how every day after the death, there were prayer meetings at the house where the family was expected to supply tea for those attending.
“The whole thing cost us around R60 000,” said Sithole.
He paid the extra costs so that the funeral would live up to the name of his brother-in-law.
“My wife had to buy a new outfit for her and my daughters,” said Sithole.
“The event was vivid, solemn and yet very splashy but it was by no means the most expensive funeral I have seen.”
Impact on families
Alicia Menendez, a professor at the University of Chicago who has done extensive research on the impact of funeral spending on household income in South Africa, said funeral costs were huge are very large and have negative effects on the families’ well-being.
“This is particularly true among the poorer households. Families that suffer a death become poorer, have fewer assets, and report higher levels of hunger for many years after the death occurred. Their children are on average less likely to be enrolled in school (and) the adults show signs of depression and anxiety related to money problems. All these problems can be linked to the amount spent on funerals” said Menendez.
“Our research in Umkhanyakude District, KZN, shows that, on average, households spend the equivalent to the median African annual income per capita to pay for an adult’s funeral. That is an enormous amount of money in a quite poor area,” she said.
Menendez began her research work with Anne Case, a professor at Princeton University after they noticed that the funeral parlour business appeared to be flourishing. As their research was related to socioeconomic conditions and health status, the topics of death and funerals “were unavoidable and we started getting more and more interested in the issue,” Menendez said.
While it had been suggested that elaborate funerals were only a recent development in South African culture, her research had found this to not be the case.
“But even if they had been, some decades ago, before the HIV and AIDS epidemic, death was mostly common in childhood or at older ages. For children funerals tend to be simple and much less expensive,” she said.
The reason South Africans spend so much on funerals is closely linked to social practices.
“Families seem to worry about their reputation and status in their community and among its extended family that tends to attend the funerals and stay for several days following it,” she said.
This view is also shared by Bishop Makhosi Ngcoza, president of the Flames of Fire Ministries Ntabankulu.
“It’s just showing off,” said Ngcoza who has set about preaching against high expenditure during funerals in his sermons.
“We in the black community have funerals more like parties or weddings. This is not appropriate and it creates a large amount of debt,” Ngcoza said.
He blames the length of funerals for the large costs, as the longer the funeral, the more food is expected to be served.
Ngcoza has been dealing with members of his congregation seeking his assistance around debt they incurred after spending on funerals. “Some of them cannot afford it but because of this ‘competition’ they conform. After the funeral they have debt, they don’t have money to take to school and then families are broken,” he said.
In June 2013, Ngcoza hosted a gathering of Eastern Cape leaders to engage around this issue.
“I invited kings and councillors, bishops and heads of the community. They were all in agreement around the issue because everyone is not happy with this problem so we ended up speaking the same language.”
He plans on taking this issue to the House of Traditional Leaders to create a law that will help people.
Pastor Kobus Dirker of the Rhema church notes that the cost of funerals was part of the need to spend.
“We always advise that people start a funeral policy and sit down with us and budget what they are spending”.
The Church also emphasises helping those in need by running a “Good Samaritan” fund to assist those facing the challenges of financing a funeral.
The act of the funeral itself is highly important and the formal gathering of people served a social role in that it brings people together, said Joshna Desai, a counselor for the Family Life Centre’s Communities (FAMSA).
He said that the funeral plays an important part in the grief process.
“The funeral serves to consolidate the loss and grief process. It also helps the family with closure,” Desai said.
* This article was first published in The Star newspapers on 18 December 2013. It forms part of a series of commentaries on the Heartlines Values & Money campaign.