COVID-19 Pandemic

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The most extravagant funeral service I’ve ever witnessed, was the burial of a big time drug lord in Tembisa a few years ago. The deco under the swanky tent would have couples from Our Perfect Wedding drooling in envy. The turnout was such that, vehicles of attendees filled the adjacent local soccer field and it was only inevitable for the jovial after-tears to last long after the deceased’s coffin hit the ground.

The magnitude of that burial might sound like an exaggeration, but funerals can be quite pricey depending on the send-off you desire to give a loved one. But if there’s any good to come from the COVID-19 pandemic, is the opportunity to rethink funeral services as a cost-cutting measure. During hard lockdown levels, the Government stipulated that a funeral can’t have more than 50 attendants, no night vigils were permitted nor after-tears and the duration of a funeral was restricted to a maximum of two hours. These conditions have helped some families drastically cut unnecessary funeral costs.

According to National Secretary of the National Funeral Director’s Association of South Africa (NFDASA) Elsabé Basillio, a funeral or cremation service can cost anything between R12 500 up to R80 000 depending on the family’s needs and funeral home. These costs include the coffin, catering and the mere organising of the service. It isn’t unusual for families to be left in debt months after the burial, due to the pressure of trying to uphold a particular standard when burying someone all in a guise of a “dignified” funeral.

Through unfortunately losing family members in two consecutive years; pre-COVID and in the midst of it, I’ve seen the cut-costing benefits of a small scale funeral. Despite the fact that we still opted to cater a full meal at my brother’s funeral last July, the number of attendants was far less than my grandmother’s burial in 2019. I still have a sense that we missed an opportunity to go full radical by just offering funeral-goers a cup of tea and a sandwich. But we would most probably be shunned upon and labelled as stingy or not having Ubuntu for serving a snack at a funeral. “Even if it’s 50 people, if the family in their linage and their tribe they [the ancestors] require a goat, a cow or chickens to send-off their loved ones in that manner, that can still continue if the family has the budget for it,” says traditional healer Itebogeng Phalatse.

“We understand as traditional or cultural people that death is also part of existence, it’s also part of life. So black people have a way of preparing for death, that’s why we have di society. When you welcome a person into this world, there are rituals that are necessary to be performed and when you send off a person, you send them out with dignity according to the customs of your tribe or of your ancestral linage,” adds Phalatse.

It’s undeniable that funerals have a way of bringing people together, this is through dining with mourners after returning from the cemetery and the controversial after-tears. Funerals become a makeshift reunion or a simple social gathering, with friends and family seeing each other after a long while apart. “I don’t think it’s about financial issues, but the tradition needs to be conducted as it should. The only thing that can be cut might be the number of people-but also that number of people come to hold space for people that have lost their loved one, they come to help the family,” says the Pretoria East based inyanga.

“Every person experiences it different – for some families, the coffin is the most important and for others the catering plays the important role,” Basillio says.  “South Africans spend money on funerals that they cannot afford.  They do not make provision for funeral costs and therefore place themselves in debt to pay for elaborate funerals.  Also ensure that if you do take out funeral cover that it is with a reputable funeral home that is underwritten by an insurer. The family’s needs are the most important factor that plays a role when it comes to expenses. Funeral homes provide what the family needs.”

It takes quite some time for people rethink the way they’ve been doing things all their lives. One thing that’s rapidly changing in South Africa, is the standing on cremation. “Cremations have increased in the last ten years but more so during Covid-19.  Different cultures have now considered cremation whereas they would have never considered it due to cultural believes.  Bereaved families experienced smaller funerals during Covid-19 and I believe we will witness smaller funerals in future.  It has become a trend,” Basillio says.

“The issue of cremation, personally I don’t know where it started or where it comes from,” admits Phalatse. Contrary to the trend highlighted by Basillio, according to the healer, traditionally people were buried under trees, atop mountains or nearer to rivers. “I’m not sure about the burning of the body, because we believe that when the spirit goes, they resurrect and reincarnate back into this life, so if you’ve burnt their remains it gives us a challenge when we want to go speak to the spirit, there is so sense of connection.”

“We don’t bury people [covered] in plastic, we used to use animal skin. When a person dies, we try by all means to honour them, there is certain clothes we send them out with, there’s certain herbs they also go out with. The pandemic has affected this, because there are people who buried their loved ones covered in plastic and when spirit being are transitioning, there might be a blockage somewhere.”

It is clear that tradition doesn’t bow to trends, but only time will tell post COVID whether people will remain rooted to their customs. But if there’s a trend that should stick is that of having respectable and modest funerals, which won’t inundate loved ones with the stress of funeral-debt.


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