This past weekend, I attended my first South African funeral, for the parent of a colleague of mine. The church service was at 6AM on a Saturday, and I unfortunately slept in after a very exhausting week. Luckily, I did manage to make it to the cemetery for the burial.

Buses, tents, lots of people…funerals are a big deal here. This is supposedly a pretty typical Saturday morning at the cemetery. Most funerals are on Saturday morning, creating a weekly cemetery rush hour.

The cemetery itself made quite an impression on me. It was a government cemetery, owned and operated by the local municipality. I’m not sure if there are private cemeteries here, but given that my teaching colleague was using the cemetery (teachers make good money compared to many people) and that there were graves clearly belonging to both black and white South Africans, I’m assuming the government cemetery is the place to go.

Because of the different management of the cemetery, things we do in America like pick plots aren’t really part of the tradition. You bury where you are told to. And it seems that the cemetery just fills up in the most efficient order. An individual is most likely to be buried next to strangers. This does not mean the cemetery is unkempt–quite the opposite. The place looks very well kept, the gravestones look expensive, and there was a full staff there on a Saturday morning complete with a backhoe to make sure all the burials went as planned.

Another aspect of the cemetery disturbed me greatly. It reminded me of my visit to Mostar, Bosnia, where the local cemetery was mostly the domain of young men who had died in the fighting in the 90s. People in SA die young, but it is not from any war. Car accidents, violence, and of course HIV/AIDS all had left their mark on the cemetery, and a random grave was just as likely to be someone over 40 as someone under. A young fellow I met I recently told me his dream is to see 2020. He was maybe in his mid 20s, and admitted to no health problems. His explanation was that people just die here.

The burial itself was short and to the point. Singing, prayers, lowering the casket, and then the men bury the body. A group of men took turns with shovels, until they decided that everyone was ready to leave and called for the backhoe to finish the job.

A few people asked me how it compared to a burial in America. I stated that it depends on the religion and cultural background of the family, but that what I saw most reminded me of a Jewish burial. Why? Because it was short, and because the family and friends help bury the body. At a Jewish funeral, everyone is welcome to shovel some dirt onto the lowered casket as a way of saying goodbye. In SA, it seems like any man who wants to can help bury the deceased. Not sure what women are supposed to do. Maybe cry, since the men aren’t allowed.

After the burial, we went to the house of the deceased (he had spent the previous night there in his casket, I think. I guess the tradition is the family spends one last night at home together) and we ate. Funerals are a big deal here. One of my teachers said he goes to a funeral basically every Saturday. And funeral insurance is extremely common and quite affordable (sometimes you see funeral insurance offered as a bonus for buying a big ticket item, like an expensive phone or a year of satellite TV), so people usually have money for the funeral. So they had a tent, and we ate a lot and drank a lot. They fed a few hundred people, I think. And there’s nothing stopping people from just showing up off the street.

The whole thing was handled by a single company that does funerals, soup to nuts: casket, tent, catering, logistics, etc. There are a lot of funeral companies in SA. It’s a big business, sadly.

That’s not all. There was a funeral on Sunday as well, but I was unable to attend due to my inability to get transport. But that funeral, tragically, was for a student at my school. I asked one teacher how often students die, and they said sometimes a few in a month. I hope that’s an overstatement. I don’t know what this learner died of, but I’m going to guess most of these student deaths are from preventable causes. It’s extremely upsetting.

On a totally unrelated note, there was a temporary church in a large tent set up down the street from me. I was going to attend this evening, but God had decided to blow it down. I had tried to attend the previous night, but it was rained out.

I also learned that the guys I saw shoveling up the dirt that had eroded down onto the paved road from the dirt road above were not municipal workers, but individuals stealing the dirt to mix with cement to make bricks to build their house. An interesting weekend…

1 Comment

Louise Hogan says:

Life (and death) seems much more immediate there, without the social screening we have here to hide behind. I am really enjoying your writing, which is allowing me to see and feel through your experiences.

12 Nov 10 @ 3am