AIDS Placing ‘Extra Burden’ of Funeral Costs on South Africa’s Poor
Mounting numbers of AIDS-related deaths are placing an "enormous financial burden" on poor South Africans facing funeral costs that start at over twice what most people earn in a month. The Christian Science Monitor reports that AIDS and poverty are "subtly changing the fabric of social life" in the country, as an increasing number of people are turning to burial practices like cremation and using a new patented cardboard coffin. These practices were once considered "taboo" in a country where the black community places an "enormous importance on the quality of the funeral provided by family members." Black South Africans have a "very sentimental cultural attachment to their loved ones" who have died, Royal Ntombela, director of cemeteries and crematoria in Durban, said, adding that dead family members are referred to as "ancestors" and relatives perform "special rituals to remember them." AIDS more than doubled the mortality rate in South Africa between 1994 and 1999, and the World Health Organization estimates that AIDS-related deaths accounted for half of the nation's total death rate in 1999, totaling nearly 250,000 AIDS-related deaths. In rural black communities the overall death rate has reached 25 or 30 deaths per 1,000, compared to six per 1,000 in white communities. Not only has the number of funeral parlors increased, but Ntombela reports that within five years all of Durban's cemeteries will have reached capacity, as cemeteries in two of the city's largest townships are already full.
Changing the Culture
A group of South African business associates has begun marketing a patented cardboard coffin for about $12, half the price of the "traditional" wooden "pauper's" coffin. They reported sales of over 2,000 coffins in the first two months of availability and have a contract to manufacture 6,000 coffins per month for a company in Mozambique. The cost of funerals and the poverty throughout most of the nation have forced people to consider burial options such as the new coffins or cremation, a practice almost unheard of in Durban five years ago, but which has grown to 3% of burials today. Durban has launched a "massive education campaign" to "gain acceptance" for cremation and the practice of "grave recycling." The program focuses on "eliminating the stigma of cremation and pointing out the cost-saving benefit of the practice." Musi Myeni, the owner of a chain of funeral homes and a funeral insurance network in the KwaZulu Natal province, said, "The economics of this whole thing will change the attitudes of the people. It's ridiculous to spend a huge sum of money on a box that people see for only two hours" (Itano, Christian Science Monitor, 5/25).