OPINION | Brendan Pearce: Last rites - Desmond Tutu's lesson for us

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Archbishop Thabo Makgoba lays the ashes of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to rest at the high altar of St George's Cathedral, with members of the Tutu family and Dean Michael Weeder of the Cathedral in the background.
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba lays the ashes of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to rest at the high altar of St George's Cathedral, with members of the Tutu family and Dean Michael Weeder of the Cathedral in the background.
Benny Gool

Archbishop Desmond Tutu performed one last act of leadership in requesting a pine casket, igniting the long-overdue national conversation on what it means to be buried with dignity, argues Brendan Pearce.


In a sacred space, in front of the high altar inside Cape Town's historic St. George's Cathedral lie the mortal remains of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As per his wishes, his remains were cremated using water in a process called acquamation.

The small box in which they were placed before being interred under an inscribed tile in the cathedral belies the gargantuan statue of the man and the history-bending, epic life he lived. So, no especially constructed mausoleum with gold embellishments and ornaments for this colossus of history. No custom-made, imported, fine mahogany or maple wood casket, with luxurious white satin interior finishes. Instead, this titan of our time willed that his signature humility shine through, even in how his last rites were to be conducted.

READ | Explainer: The process behind Archbishop Desmond Tutu's water cremation

He arguably performed one last act of leadership in doing that, igniting the long-overdue national conversation on what it means to be buried with dignity. That his pine casket became a talking point shows that his burial rites struck a chord with South Africans, many of whom rightly compared these aspects with their own lived realities of either attending or organising funerals of deceased loved ones. 

Invariably, the conversation triggered by The Arch's no-frills funeral tended to pivot around the concept of a dignified funeral. For us as Africans, dignity is highly prized yet priceless. 

But it seems there are ways in which we are willing and actually do pay the price in exchange for our self-defined conceptions of dignity. In an economic milieu of stagnant growth and record unemployment, that price is not insignificant, and in Rand and cents, it is rising steadily each year. R18 billion per year is what Hippo told us a few years ago is what we pay as South Africans on last rites and customs, with an average of R40 000 per funeral. 

Taken up on a cloud of 'expensive' and 'flashy'?

Recently, we at the Finmark Trust conducted a study on funerals and their cost drivers. Crunching the data, we generated a word cloud to reflect the frequency with which particular words spontaneously sprang to mind for our respondents upon the mention of the concept of a 'dignified funeral'. 

The two most prominent words were; 'Expensive' and 'Flashy'. Coming in slightly behind those two were; 'After tears', 'Celebrities', 'Red Carpet' and 'Limousine'. 

Interestingly, the Oxford dictionary defines 'Dignified' as "A calm and serious manner that deserves respect". Words that barely featured in our respondents' spontaneous responses. Makes you think, doesn't it? 

READ | SA is the fourth most expensive place to die in

But how did we get to this point? Do the adverts we all so eagerly watch in between our favourite TV shows influence our perception of what counts as a dignified funeral? Or is it the recent trend of funerals of prominent persons being broadcast on television, coupled with the new and necessary innovation of live-streaming funeral services on social media? These phenomena have afforded us a glimpse into the wide-ranging spectrum of the meaning of a dignified funeral. 

To this day, many of us can recall the funeral of our favourite musician, actor, or sports star. You probably remember clearly the red carpet sprawled out along the flower and petal lined walk-up to the auditorium where the service was held. You likely can recall vividly the bottled water distributed to all mourners. The bottles probably had the deceased's picture and name on the label. 

And for the truly well-heeled, the funeral service is usually just half the story. For these folks of discerning taste and class, resting in peace is being re-defined to culminate in acreage in one of the burgeoning private memorial parks. The entry-level gravesite at these cemeteries will dock R32 000 from the bereaved family's pockets, while a bespoke family memorial estate that can accommodate up to eight family members 'for eternity' costs up to R350 000.

Some of the most elaborately decked-out graves at these memorial parks are fitted with an eternal flame whose gas account is paid for monthly. Others boast water features, private gardens with garden furniture, and life-sized stone sculpture 'angels'. Others still, have jaw-dropping Zimbabwean marble granite tombstones, sometimes artistically carved in the image of the deceased and artefacts depicting the activity they were best known for in their lifetime. 

Luxurious or modest, funerals still hit the pocket

But affordability is relative to one's means. We know now from various pieces of research we've done, that the desire to go full throttle financially to cover the costs of a dignified funeral knows no LSM or class boundaries. 

Our study broke down the funeral process into three stages for analysis. We identified as the first phase, the period immediately after the death has occurred. It typically triggers costs such as communication in the form of airtime and data, transport and logistics such as the setup of a tent or marquee to receive mourners.  The second phase is the mourning period that follows a death announcement. Costs include those of a venue for a memorial service, groceries and catering for mourners, and in some instances can include some renovations to the bereaved family's home. 

The third phase includes much of the outward display that is believed to leave a lasting impression on whether the funeral was dignified or not. This is the burial phase. It comes with a basket of expenditure that includes, but is not limited to the casket, burial site, transport such as busses for mourners, the slaughtering of a cow or goats, tombstone and even the after-tears gathering. 

Do we live for the day we die?

Studying these processes in this manner helps us isolate what it is that we spend so much on, where funerals are concerned. 

From our research, a picture emerges that suggests that the death and funeral stage of our lives dominates much of our financial decision-making for years if not decades of our lives. Because of the financial implications we know to be attendant to a death in the family and preparations for a funeral, we seem to expend a sizeable amount of our financial planning and resources towards preparing for, covering the costs of, and recovering from the financial impact of this one life event. 

Research suggests that we may be doing this even to the extent of imbalance between planning and saving for a dignified funeral on the one hand, and our other financial, insurance and investment needs on the other hand. 

Our Finscope 2019 study tells us that 35 percent of South Africans perceive funeral cover to be the most important insurance. Income protection in case of dread illness or losing a job was deemed most important by 27 percent, while only 13 percent considered health insurance to be most important. And who can blame individuals and households for this ranking of priorities? No one really, when the same survey also reveals that 33 percent of adults experienced an unexpected event in the preceding year that resulted in financial loss. Crucially, for 41 percent of those who had such an event occur in their lives, it was a death in the family. 

The picture of how the Covid-19 pandemic may have altered these perceptions of what our top priorities are or should be, is still pixelating into focus. In the coming months and years, it will be interesting to observe whether perceptions about the importance of income protection will be influenced by the job and earnings losses that became lived reality for so many in the wake of the national lockdowns. 

This conversation segues us down the path of asking what the opportunity cost of imbalanced, death-and-funeral-oriented financial planning is for the average South African. 

Data shows us that spending on items like savings and wealth creation is at a piteous and stagnant 3 percent and debt service accounts for about 6 percent of living expenses. 

Insurance yes, but over-insurance?

Based on data from the funeral insurance sector, it is arguable that many South Africans spend many of their living years saving for the day they or a loved one dies.

In 2018 for example, about R3.6 billion was spent each month on funeral insurance premium payments.  Nearly 22 million of us maintained some kind of funeral insurance in 2018 and 2019, with about 24 percent of policy-holders spending an average of between R100 and R149 per month on premiums. And in our country's true ubuntu tradition, on average one funeral policy-holder typically provisions for the lives of several members of a household, extended family, and friends. 

And the phenomenon of people holding more than one funeral insurance policy, sometimes to cover the exact same individual lives multiple times over, is very real.

Industry data reveals that many South Africans hold on average two funeral policies. But there are instances of individuals holding up to four or five such insurance products. We found that multiple policies are a phenomenon particularly discernable among social grant recipients and middle-income earners. This, in the context of seemingly perennial economic hardship and incomes not stretching far enough to cover individuals' and households' monthly expenses, arguably raises the spectre of over-insurance. 

To repurpose the pay-off line from a funeral insurance provider's old television advert; striking a balance between the 'should you die' considerations and the 'should you live' priorities and concerns, is arguably a personal finance sweet-spot that many of us should be shooting for.

Goodness knows it's much needed in these times of record unemployment, pandemic-battered economy, job losses and deepening poverty. 

- Brendan Pearce is the CEO of Finmark Trust.

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