The Blog

Funeral Frenzy: Mourners, Entrepreneurs and the Price of Death in Africa

A veritable credit industry has emerged to help fund these elaborate funerals. Infomercials on weekday morning televisions market funeral policies endorsed by famous South African entertainers.

A day may soon be approaching that most South Africans hope will never come - the day their former President, and beloved standard-bearer of the nation, Nelson Mandela dies.

At 94 years-old, his declining health has been well documented and - though it might have bypassed us here in the UK - his future funeral has already become the source of much controversy.

His grandson Mandla Mandela, ANC member of Parliament and chieftain of Mvezo - the Eastern Cape village where the former President was born - has been accused of secretly agreeing a multi-million Rand deal with local broadcasters for the rights to film Nelson Mandela's funeral.

Although he has vigorously denied the accusations, some South Africans believe that Chief Mandla is seeking to profit from asserting control over both his grandfather's funeral and the location of his final resting place, which will undoubtedly become a national shrine and a popular tourist destination.

Adding to the speculation, Chief Mandla recently ordered that the three bodies of Nelson Mandela's children be exhumed from the village of Qunu, where they were buried, and relocated to Mandla's chieftaincy in Mvezo some 26 miles away, suggesting Nelson Mandela's final resting place will be by their side. This has occurred despite the former President's obvious affection for Qunu, a place described lovingly in his autobiography as 'home' and the location of his current retirement residence.

Ordinary South Africans can relate to the personal politics at work in this unfolding saga. Funerals for the majority black African population are often the scenes of intense family conflict. Debates centre around the 'proper' preparation of the body, the location of the grave and how best to remember the deceased. While these issues may not sound unfamiliar to those of us in the West, the rapid transformation of South African society in the post-apartheid period has lent them a particular potency. Widespread AIDS mortality, globalisation, and continuing political and economic uncertainty have meant that funerals--much like the would-be funeral of Nelson Mandela--are now important markers of identity and ambition.

The significance of funerals can be witnessed every weekend in South Africa's formerly black townships. Funerals have become sites of conspicuous consumption, often involving personalised memorabilia such as T-shirts and mugs depicting the deceased, limousine hearses, video recordings, and a never-ending supply of freshly slaughtered meat, salads, soda, and the ubiquitous samp and beans.

A veritable credit industry has emerged to help fund these elaborate funerals. Infomercials on weekday morning televisions market funeral policies endorsed by famous South African entertainers. Shoppers in the local supermarket can even choose from 'pay as you go' funeral policies hanging next to mobile phone top-up credit vouchers. You start with a minimal start up fee and then, like with a mobile phone, you top-up your policy as and when you can.

The local press often place the blame of this unseemly commercialisation on the shoulders of black undertakers who operate the numerous funeral homes that are now a permanent feature of urban townships. They are condemned for feasting on the flesh of the dead, intent only on cashing in on the 'gold mine' caused by widespread AIDS mortality.

Undertakers are well aware of this depiction of themselves as scavenger men. They argue their businesses should rather be seen as providing an essential service as well as an important local source of employment in these cash-strapped times.

I think that the rise of a funeral industry is not simply a tale of the complete commoditization of death in South Africa at the expense of deeper more spiritual processes. Funerals are still very much about belonging, about how South Africans choose to make sense of themselves and their place in a rapidly changing world. Taking a closer look, the funeral industry itself has ushered in some fascinating cultural innovations, such as the practice of exhumation, which allow South Africans to connect to the dead in new and interesting ways.

So with the final resting place of Mandela still a source of fierce public debate and indeed the cause of a bitter family feud, it is perhaps apt that even the nation's moral icon is not immune to the frenzy that surrounds the funerals of so many of his compatriots.