AIDS May Be Curtailing South Africa’s ‘Lavish’ Funeral Industry
The growing number of deaths from AIDS-related complications has South Africa's funeral industry "fighting" to maintain the "high-fashion" style it has developed over the last 15 years, as funeral directors are faced with a large number of deaths and little money to cover their costs, the Wall Street Journal reports. Beginning with the rise of black-on-black political violence in the mid-1980s, funerals began to evolve from "modest" traditional burials in "simple" coffins or animal skins to "events of defiance and personal political statements." The importance of a lavish funeral gained greater significance after the end of apartheid, when "bigger and more ostentatious" funerals were viewed as symbols of "having made it." Now AIDS threatens to change the industry, as too many people are dying too quickly for their families to be able to afford the "big send-offs" that have become fashionable among blacks. Nearly 600,000 South Africans are predicted to die this year, 195,000 from AIDS-related complications. By 2005, the number of deaths is expected to reach 915,000, with more than half resulting from AIDS. Matthews Mogafe, CEO of B3 Funeral Services, explained the situation confronting funeral directors: "At times you get an unfortunate situation where two or three members of one family get sick and die. You just buried one member of a family, and five months later they are back." However, the family can no longer afford to spend the amount that it did on the first funeral, he said, adding that the lack of money does not keep families from "expect[ing] the same service" the second time around.
Covering the Costs
Funerals in South Africa start at around $200 and can exceed $700 for the more lavish ceremonies, which often include foreign cars, graveside tents, sound systems and air-conditioned buses for transporting mourners between gravesite and funeral feast. "There is a hype that now comes with funerals, a sales pitch that manipulates the bereaved and leaves them little option at the end," Rev. Molefe Tsele, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, which is "leading a crusade against lavish burials," said. Most South African blacks have an annual disposable income of less than $925. However, they "splurge" on funerals, borrowing money when necessary or taking part in "burial societies," quasi-insurance plans to which some South Africans contribute up to half of their earnings. Now with the mounting AIDS-death toll, many of those funeral societies and other insurance plans are placing restrictions on their policies and membership, lengthening the time before new members can receive benefits, thereby "excluding people in the later stages of AIDS," or "simply refusing to pay out." Moreover, AIDS is largely affecting those of working age. "We cannot continue to have funerals of extravagance when it is mostly the economically active who are being taken away by this disease," Tsele said. Dingaan Thobela, a former world boxing champion turned funeral director, called for government subsidies. "We are already suffering a shortage of cemetery space. We can't keep charging prices like now ... People will be too poor," he admitted. Public funds are "unlikely," as the government has little money to fund "basic" services like health care. To cut costs, many people are now requesting funerals during the week when rates are cheaper (Block, Wall Street Journal, 8/8).