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DEATH AND SHEDDING PART 1

How blackouts compound the trauma of the bereaved and batter the funeral industry

How blackouts compound the trauma of the bereaved and batter the funeral industry
A cemetery near Mariannhill, west of Durban. Some funeral parlours are forced to ask customers to bury their loved ones quickly because of rolling blackouts. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

We look at the toll that continuous rolling blackouts are taking on the ritual of burying loved ones in South Africa, and the impact on the funeral parlour industry.

Funeral costs have been skyrocketing owing to persistent rolling blackouts, since funeral parlours are forced to buy petrol to power their freezers. Some warn that bodies will rot and smell during blackouts.

Cremators say they have to fork out huge amounts for petrol and diesel so they can operate during load shedding – and they often have to pass this cost onto customers.

Industry operators say blackouts are causing financial strain throughout the funeral businesses value chain and they have no choice but to pass the cost onto consumers.

On top of this, some funeral parlours claim they are being ransacked and robbed during extended power cuts.

Combined Nations Funeral Parlours’ Association president Mxolisi Mntebeni (left) with Zakhele Xaba at their offices in Durban on 27 March 2023. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

The first period of chronic power shortages occurred in late 2007 and lasted until at least May 2008. Part of the problem is linked to corruption within Eskom management and its power stations, sabotage and the supply of substandard coal to coal-fired power plants.

South Africa suffered more than 200 days of rolling blackouts in 2022, while they have been implemented every day in 2023 so far, including six days at Stage 6. 

Eskom says blackouts will be with us for at least the next two years and there are fears that it could reach Stage 8 or even a total system shutdown.

Track rolling blackouts with The Outlier here.

Mounting crises

The funeral industry has been lurching from one crisis to another: besides the power crisis, it had to bury tens of thousands of people during the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years, while some funeral houses in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng were vandalised and looted during the July 2021 riots.

In late January the South African Funeral Practitioners Association (SAFPA) urged bereaved families to consider burying their loved ones within four days of death to avoid being forced to bury badly decomposed bodies.

Vuyisile Mabinda, SAFPA national secretary-general, said the load shedding reality called for desperate measures or new ways of doing things – while people in South Africa preferred to bury their loved ones on the weekend, current circumstances necessitated a rethink.

The industry is seeing a large number of putrefied bodies being buried.

“The industry is seeing a large number of putrefied bodies being buried. Burying one’s kin within four days or less is cost-effective and prevents families from seeing their departed ones in a poor state of decomposition,” Mabinda said.

“Load shedding has a ripple effect on the bereaved. Besides seeing their loved ones decay at a rapid rate, they have to endure delays in the death certificate registration process at Home Affairs because of load shedding. This forces families to postpone the burial.”

Mabinda added that the government must intervene quickly to end rolling blackouts or the entire funeral parlour industry will be brought to its knees.

The Sibiya funeral parlour offices on Crompton Street in Pinetown, west of Durban, on 27 March 2023. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

“Take a 45-year-old man with a history of diabetes: the minute he passes, he will start bloating within an hour. So, if our refrigerators cannot manage decaying bodies, then we are looking at a disaster,” he said.

Generators not enough

Mxolisi Mtebeni, a Durban funeral parlour director and president of the Combined Nations Funeral Parlours Association, said that although all the parlours comply with the regulation that they must all have generators that kick in when blackouts start, often this is not enough.

Mtebeni said most of the funeral parlours are small businesses that cannot afford a huge hike in the cost of doing business brought on by blackouts and rising fuel prices.

“First of all we need big generators to power our fridges. These big generators cost about R100,000 or more. And then you have to keep on buying diesel or petrol to power these fridges during load shedding.

“Many of us are small businesses who cannot afford these costs, so in most cases we have no choice but to pass them (these costs) over to the customers and this results in the rising cost of funerals, especially for the poor people. What’s even worse is that the government is not coming to the party to help us here. We are on our own,” he said.

Mtebeni denied that some of the smaller parlours are leaving bodies to rot during blackouts to avoid buying fuel for generators.

“In some cases, funerals are delayed because we cannot obtain death and burial certificates from the Home Affairs Department and municipality offices because of load shedding. This delays and frustrates us and affects our clients because they also cannot get [the] funeral policy insurance payment in time so that they can bury their loved ones,” he said.

One of the Gama Funeral Service offices in Pinetown on 27 March 2023. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Phindile Dlamini (32) from an informal settlement in Inanda, north of Durban, said her family was surprised in January this year when a funeral parlour ordered them to bury her late grandmother (72).

“We were hoping to bury her on a Saturday when all the far-flung family members have arrived. But they (the funeral parlour) told us we have to try and bury within three or four days or else our granny’s body will be decomposed. We had no choice but to bury her on a Thursday,” she said.

Zakhele Xaba, a director at Ndaleka Funeral Services, said they have encountered a number of poor people unable to bury their loved ones owing to escalating costs.

“We have to do our best to accommodate our customers. But paying for petrol or diesel to power our generators is killing us. Imagine seeing poor people who cannot afford to bury their own. It is very sad and I believe that the government must intervene to help here,” he added. 

Cremations

Cremators too are being hit hard by rolling blackouts. Early this year, a court ordered Drakenstein Crematorium to temporarily close after findings indicated a contravention of conditions of its atmospheric emission licence. The facility cremates humans and pets.

This came after residents of Paarl, Wellington and neighbouring areas complained about the smell of dead bodies odour due to load shedding. It is believed that the blackouts caused incinerators to stop working while cremations were under way.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘People are broken’ — Daily Maverick readers describe toll rolling blackouts take on their health and businesses

In August 2022, the crematorium was served with a notice by the Cape Winelands District Municipality for “compulsory” information to ensure that it was in compliance with its atmospheric emission licence.

Thegraj Kassie, of the Clare Estate Hindu Crematorium, which is about 15km from the Durban city centre, said they are also in dire straits.

“Load shedding has increased our cost tremendously. We don’t keep the bodies here as we only do cremation. But even so, when there is load shedding we have to spend a lot of money to buy fuel,” he said.

Combined Nations Funeral Parlours’ Association in Durban. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Kassie said most facilities have huge generators that require a huge amount of fuel to run. 

Read Part two of this two-part series here:

Burial prices to die for … or not – going out in style or as a pauper

The process of cremating a human body takes between one-and-a-half and two hours. The body is placed in a retort, or chamber, which is then heated to between 760ºC and 980ºC. At this temperature the body burns and the bones turn to ash. The ashes are placed in an urn and returned to the family.

“Unless the government is able to bring to an end rolling load shedding, we are in big trouble and the whole funeral industry value chain will suffer. Our customers will eventually have to bear the cost that comes with load shedding. Funerals will cost a fortune and the poor will not be able to afford funerals and cremations,” Kassie said. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

 

 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    They should on their invoice show the cost of the funeral, then a line with “Value Added Tax” adding 15% then a line with “Cost of ANC votes” another 20%

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