by Pamela Maringa

Planning a funeral can be very stressful and emotionally draining, but most of all, it can be incredibly expensive. We are living in a world where everything is driven by money. So we end up having to make expensive decisions because we care about making good impressions.

When my aunt passed away earlier this year, I got the chance to be directly involved in arranging a funeral. She was a very close family member and our houses are on the same block. We had to carry out the funeral preparations together with her children. We had meetings every night with our elders to plan each day and to check if that day’s assignments had been accomplished. On a daily basis we presented invoices for things that needed payment.

My aunt had insurance plan with a funeral parlour and it took care of her coffin and the hearse. She had chosen a simple coffin for herself. But there were family members who thought she deserved a much better coffin. Instead of a simple hearse, they wanted a limousine. This meant they had to top up on what the insurance was offering. Some of the things we had to hire were decorations, large pots, serving tables, mobile fridge, chairs, tents and musical instruments. In many African cultures, when the leader of the family passes away, we have to slaughter a cow for the whole community. Cows range from R7000 upwards. It also has to be taken to the butchery so we can have it cut into pieces. This is another expense. Payments have to be made for the gravesite. The amount depends on the municipality of the area. The insurance money covered some of these things but it simply wasn’t enough.

After the funeral, we were relieved that it all went well and that it was finally over. When everything was paid for and the tombstone was fitted, we felt the strain in our pockets.

Thinking about it now, my aunt was a woman who liked to share what she had with other people. I don’t think she would have liked the fact that all the money was spent on her alone. She would have liked her children to have some financial freedom still. She wouldn’t want them to be broke.

One thing I never understand about African funerals is why people have to move in with the family from the time the death of their loved one. They stay until at least the week after the funeral. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t support each other, but in our way of doing things we end up causing more stress for the family than simply supporting them. Food is expensive and having to feed all these people who have temporarily moved in, causes an even bigger hole in the family’s finances. On the day of the funeral the grieving family is expected to feed the whole community. Surprisingly, we will still have the audacity to criticise what they give us!

Since funerals are already expensive, why don’t we help each other and relieve the burden of having the grieving family feeding us? Instead of expecting food from them, why don’t we try to help them and bring food or other necessary things to them?

Some of the spending was not so that my aunt could have a dignified send off. I think it had more to do with making impressions. My aunt was a single parent and a bread winner. Her children could have used the extra money spent on the funeral to pay towards their studies and other life expenses.

There are some families who can’t afford life insurance. It is highly selfish of us, I think, to put this amount of pressure on them. I really think lunch after a funeral shouldn’t be a norm. Rather, the family should only be expected to feed those who come from faraway places.

As Africans, how do we challenge our cultural practices? Do we stop the culture of feeding each other at funerals and risk being labelled the “norm breakers”? Where is the spirit of Ubuntu which emphasises caring and sharing for one another? However, I would also ask, where is the spirit of Ubuntu when society keeps putting expectations on us? When do we regard a cultural practice as no longer relevant? And does today’s economy allow us to spend so much money on just one funeral?

These are the conversations we should be having. If not, we will face much bigger financial problems when it comes to funerals – especially in the current economy.

When planning funerals, we have to remember that those who are left behind, still need to be taken care of.