Mondli Zondo

Why are black funerals so expensive?

2017-10-24 10:20


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I recall the first time I was directly involved in arranging a funeral. My beloved great-grandmother passed on in October 2008 and I wanted to make sure she had a dignified send off. 

With both my parents being absent in my childhood, she raised me, disciplined me and was my best friend. So her funeral had to be perfect and I think it was. 

I think each of us can relate to this desire to honour the life of a loved one is this way. It's almost a decade since her departure and as I reflect I now realise that much of the efforts we put into her funeral were for our benefit and not hers.

Gogo (as we called her) was a simple woman and she wouldn't have wanted all the fuss. A modest funeral with a decent coffin and her family to bid her farewell would have sufficed. But like most black families today we aimed to impress. We were more concerned with what people would say and spent less time mourning our loss. 

I remember it vividly: we slaughtered enough sheep to feed a community, we chose a casket instead of a coffin, we hired a huge tent although we knew it would be an intimate affair with only family and her church members in attendance. 

At the end of it all we were exhausted and poorer for it. I don't expect any sympathies for this because honestly, it was all self-inflicted and sadly this is the story of many black families. Our funerals are too expensive and unnecessarily so.

According to Avbob Mutual Assurance Society a relatively cheap casket goes for R6 565 while a top of the range one can cost up to R37 500. 

Funeral directors agree that this is usually the most costly aspect of any funeral. Think about it, we spend so much on something that is going to be buried six feet under and in some cases, will be dug up and stolen after the funeral. Why have we accepted this as normal when it isn't?

Of all the expenses related to a funeral, I find catering costs to be the most wasteful. First of all, I don't understand why we cater at funerals to begin with. Before biting my head off just give yourself a moment to think about this objectively. 

Isn't it selfish of us to expect people who have lost a loved one to be preoccupied with feeding us? We even have the audacity to judge their food because we have developed a culture where the 'success' of a funeral is determined by the casket and the food provided. 

I wrote about this on Facebook over the weekend and a friend remarked how her family was the talk of the township because they didn't serve salads as part of the meal. You find neighbours in queues after a funeral waiting for a plate of food. Can't they attend the service and then return home to eat if they are hungry? Shouldn't we respectfully let a family deal with their loss in peace instead of adding this burden on their shoulders?

We all know too well how expensive mass catering can be. A typical black funeral involves a sacrificial livestock offering of some sort. A goat can cost R1 000 while a lean cow goes for R7 000. That's just the meat. 

Catering costs differ depending on what a family wants and these days one has to go big as funerals are now social events. This culture is firmly entrenched as most, if not all, burial societies offer a 'catering benefit' one can pay in addition to the monthly premium. 

Lately, the trend is to outsource the catering function. A cursory look at some advertisements on shows costs can start at R17 000 depending on the expected number of guests. Self-catering is also expensive once you factor in the hiring of stoves, plates, pots, serving tables and tents. All of this can cost up to R4 000. 

This probably seems like small change but think of the families who can't really afford this but feel obligated to provide it. These families go out of their way to give us a seven colour plate and then have to deal with a mountain of debt later on their own. This cannot be just or fair. 

Even in the case of a family that can afford this, surely this is money they should be used to meet other needs as they move on with their lives after the funeral. 

A few weeks ago, ANC presidential hopeful Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma hosted a "funeral indaba" in Durban. She used this platform to call for "radical economic transformation" in the funeral industry. Her vision is to see black people being part of the entire value chain by manufacturing caskets and growing the flowers that are used at funerals, for example. 

These are honourable intentions however she didn't address the elephant in the room in my view. 

What would be radical and transformative is ensuring that families are left with more in their pockets after a death instead of them being poorer because of it. She needed to call for an end to this practice of spending beyond one's means but also an end to the unnecessary costs we often spend on funerals. 

To achieve this, we need funeral directors and undertakers to be responsible in the packages they offer. The burial society business is unregulated in our country and I'm encouraged by the announcements to establish a body called the Burial Society of South Africa to protect both these societies and their members. 

What I am expecting is not unreasonable or impractical. If we expect credit lenders to be responsible for example and we place regulations on that industry, it makes sense that we do the same to an industry that is an inevitably part of all our lives. 

However, what is needed most is a change in our own mindsets. Baby steps like declaring that "only tea will be served after the service" will get us there. Yes we are living through a culture that promotes 'balling' and excessive spending but we do not have to bequeath the same fate to succeeding generations. 

- Mondli Zondo (@MoZondo) is a columnist and a Mandela Washington Fellow. He writes in his personal capacity.

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