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

Burial prices to die for … or not – going out in style or as a pauper
A coffin shop on Gale Street in Durban on 27 March 2023. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

How much would you expect to pay to bury a loved one? The price tags might make your jaw drop – and rolling blackouts are only making this worse.

Studies have shown that South Africa is one of the most expensive countries in which to die, so the soaring costs of funerals, as one of the many consequences of rolling blackouts, have been particularly devastating.  

A research paper by UK insurer Sunlife, conducted worldwide and released in late 2020, revealed that South Africa is the fourth-most-expensive country in terms of funeral costs. The price tag for burial or cremation accounts for 13% of the average annual salary.

Funerals in this country, it found, can vary between R26,875 and millions of Rands.

See Part one of our two-part series here: How blackouts compound the trauma of the bereaved and batter the funeral industry 

Another study, by researchers Anne Case, Anu Garrib, Alicia Menendex and Analia Olgiati and title Paying the Piper: The High Cost of Funerals in South Africa, found that some South Africans see funerals as occasions to show prestige and status, and therefore want elaborate occasions to send off their loved ones in style.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Coffin? Casket? Cremation? How to make your death more environmentally friendly

“It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of funerals in South African life. Funerals serve to honour the dead, who are entering a new life as ‘ancestors’. In addition, funerals mark the deceased’s status (and that of his family) within the community. They also strengthen ties with neighbours and extended family, who may travel long distances to attend a funeral. More than any other single rite of passage – births, graduations, marriages – funerals provide a focal point for family and community life,” the authors write.

A cemetery near Mariannhill, west of Durban. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

“For some or all of these reasons, funerals are elaborate, and expensive. In addition to expenses for a coffin, traditional burial blankets, and (often) a tent for the funeral, immediate family must pay to entertain mourners. After a death, extended household members may arrive for a lengthy visit. It is expected that the immediate family of the deceased will feed mourners who have come for the funeral, for as long as they choose to stay. In addition, animals are slaughtered to honour the dead.”

What about the poor?

There are options for people who cannot afford expensive funerals.

If you die within the municipal area or on state property such as a hospital, school or prison, and no one has offered to carry the costs of your funeral, the municipality in which you live is duty bound to bury you at no cost. 

Municipalities sometimes distinguish between a pauper and a destitute funeral.

On the other hand, cremations can be cheaper – on average in South Africa, expect to pay between R7,000 and R15,000.

Shortage of burial space

Compounding the problem and also contributing to the increasing costs of funerals, is the shortage of burial space, with some municipalities running out of cemetery space as they battle increasing demand.

This has opened an opportunity for private cemeteries, including Lala Kahle Memorial Park, which opened in 2012, in Botha’s Hill, about 40km west of Durban.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Of flowers, funerals and festivals — the atavistic compulsion we have as humans to connect

An employee told Daily Maverick on Friday morning that burial space in that facility has run out and they are preparing to extend it.

“The burial space costs from R17,800 upward but we don’t have any burial space available at the moment,” she said.

Funeral costs

Mxolisi Mtebeni, the president of the Combined National Funeral Practitioners Association, said poor families must have a minimum of R8,000 to be able to bury a loved one. But decent funerals start at about R50,000 and could hit R250,000 or even R1-million.

“It all depends on the choice of the family. It depends on the amount a family can afford.

“Many families have funeral insurance, which helps surviving household members defray some funeral expenses. But I have seen some families who have had to borrow money to pay for the funeral of a loved one.

“As funeral parlours we have developed a model to fit different categories of people,” he said.

For example, coffins range from R800 while lavish caskets and domes cost between R50,000 and R100 000. Funeral packages cost up to R250,000.

Coffins on sale in Durban. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

He said there was a time, especially during Covid-19 epidemic, when there was a shortage of coffins and caskets.

“Coffins and caskets were not only expensive, but also very scarce. I remember that at one stage in 2021 I had to travel to Paulpietersburg (367km from Durban) to get a casket. Now they are available, but the cost is still very high.”

South African Funeral Supplies, one of the country’s largest manufacturers and suppliers of coffins, caskets, equipment and other funeral accessories, said a number of factors are contributing to the escalating cost of funerals.

For instance, “the timber and other materials used to make these coffins, caskets and domes is very expensive”, said Sphindile Mdabe, a manager at the company. DM

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


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