Spend it on the living

A PROFOUND thought I heard recently from a young Millennial was” “We owe it to everyone to die with a modicum of style.”

I like this new angle on the old “live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse,” which quote by the way, comes from the 1949 movie Knock on Any Door.

In 1949, World War II had been over for less than four years and the “clink” at Oribi Village in Pietermaritzburg, now used as a pub for the Vintage Sports Car Club, was then still used as a holding tank to dry out drunk and disorderly soldiers who had remained enlisted in the Union Defence Force to demobilise the vast war machine parked at Hayfields.

My granddad was one of those soldiers. Those dismantling the war machine, I mean, not the drunk and disorderly ones, at least as far as I can tell from his memoirs.

More about this ancestor of mine later. Meanwhile, the aim of this column is to inspire the next generation of ancestors (if generation is the right word) to consider dying with such style that they won’t put their family deeper in debt.

In short, I am talking about the dead instructing the living to spend less on funerals.

Now, before all the cultural gatekeepers, religious leaders and undertakers, who make a very handsome living by disposing of the bloated cadavers of our dearly departed, get vexed, this is no criticism of your jobs, which are very important both to increase our velocity of money — a term economists use to measure prosperity —and of course, to get rid of rotting bodies in a dignified way. I am writing this for ancestors, those still living and those already dead (who may right now be reading this over your shoulder), in the hope that all of us will make it our dying wish (or late wish) that the still breathing not waste money on the final send-off. The still living can do this in a last will. The already dead can do so in dreams.

For whether you are agnostic or pray to the ancestors, as do millions of Africans, Chinese and a few Christians who read Revelations 6, it is a fact that the cost of funerals in South Africa is beggaring the living and I am sure there is not a grandparent dead or alive who would want this for his or her family, or approve of how funerals have become fashion shows. It is also a fact that most of our funerals are no longer about the dead, but about the living, where if it isn’t political speeches, it is about showing off, getting it on and, of course, stuffing our faces with all the free food and drink.

By not setting limits in a last will and testament, such as demanding a plain pine coffin or asking the bereaved rather to spend the funeral budget on the grandchildren’s birthdays, we are allowing our families to be mercilessly exploited in their grief and, it has to be said, their vanity.

The sums involved are staggering. Fin24 quotes Jacky Huma, head of micro-insurance at the Financial Services Board (FSB), estimating that just funeral premiums in the country totalled R4,9 billion in 2011. That was over R1,3 million a day that could have been spent on birthday cakes instead of coffins — to celebrate life, instead of death. This does not include the billions in micro loans granted at punitive interest rates to pay for the last rites.

I am not advocating an end to these rites that give comfort to the bereaved — well, not a quick end anyway. I am, instead, advocating that we start implementing the changes that all the middle-aged among us mutter about at the funerals of our parents. In this I am encouraged by Sihawukele Ngubane, who wrote in the anthropological publication Mankind Quarterly that traditional practices, such as spitting on the grave, burying the personal belongings of the dead person, slaughtering an animal to cover the body of the deceased and throwing sand over it, are rejected as “primitive”.

Ngubane states this transition from the traditional burial to Western funeral practices is now the norm in the towns and cities, and hopefully, having a last will and testament that tells the living to invest in the grandchildren, not the grave, will become the next tradition.

For as long as we Africans spend more on funerals than on birthdays, we are worth more dead than alive, and no parent wants that for his or her children.

This, indeed, was the message from my ancestor, a pioneer on both sides of the veil.

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