The funerals that cost families dear

Mourners at funeral
Image caption Bright coloured clothes are a common feature

Funerals in South Africa are lavish and generous affairs, and some are so extravagant they can leave a bereaved family counting the financial, as well as the emotional, cost.

When there's a death in the family, people in South Africa usually visit the home of the deceased to pay their respects.

This will happen for a week or so, mostly in the evenings when sympathisers come from work. An incredible amount of money is spent on tea, coffee, cakes and drinks to serve to those commiserating with the mourners.

Just the groceries leading up to the day of the funeral will set you back hundreds if not thousands of dollars, depending on the size of your social network.

On the night before the big day, people traditionally hold a vigil. Here the number of attendees nearly doubles that of the evening crowds, requiring even more resources. For example, a tent, tables and chairs where the vigil can be held. All these will need to be hired, at astronomical amounts because of high demand.

A survey conducted back in 2004 found that South Africans spend more time at funerals than at weddings or even doing their hair at salons. It seems like very little has changed since then. Conspicuous consumption is the order of the day at funerals.

Molefi Kupane runs one of the biggest funeral parlours, conducting a minimum of 40 funerals every Saturday.

Surprisingly perhaps, he reckons people spend too much on funerals. He sees poor people blow life insurance payouts on the events. And they buy expensive caskets. Most are made out of beautiful ironwood, oak, kiaat, or walnut. But some want the most expensive, called Prometheus, which is a brass and gold-plated, steel affair.

Sitting at Kupane funerals in Orland East, Soweto, I observed elderly women clad in colourful blankets and head scarves slowly walk in to pay for the service.

Kupane, a university law graduate, runs the family business and is the shoulder on which the Soweto community cries. But he goes a step further than consoling bereaved families, in trying, as best he can, to persuade people not to squander all their life insurance funds on expensive coffins.

But the wise words of the undertaker can only go so far because on the day of burial, it's all systems go.

There's a tradition of turning up in the best and most expensive car at the ceremony. People wear designer sunglasses and dresses, and the latest suits. And gone are the days of mourners coming a funeral dressed in black. In the 21st Century, it's all colours - bright reds and yellows. As long as the attire is up to the high standard of the fashionistas.

Image caption South Africans spend more time at funerals than weddings

At the graveside, the trend setters are not helping the big mama to sing her song. They literally pose.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes - once these words are uttered by the lead vicar, the burial rites are finished. Then the race back home snakes through the vast network of Soweto roads. A massive lunch will be served, topped with dessert.

But don't forget something called "after-tears". Here the drinks roll out like at the after-party of a fancy awards ceremony, followed by obligatory music and dance. The conclusion is the satisfaction that the deceased got a decent send off.

"I'm looking forward to a time where people will bury within their means," says Kupane, because quite often he has to help bury others without charge, simply because even in a post-apartheid South Africa, the levels of poverty are still unacceptably high. And there are 87 funeral undertakers dotted all across Soweto.

And when my time comes, I just quietly hope the old mama can sing my favourite hymn - Ithemba Lami - My wish, simply because I can't sing.

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