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Burials of lost loved ones always have, and continue to have, deep traditional and emotive values reinforced by perceptions of dignity and respect. With South Africa’s diverse communities that have unique cultures and religions, burial methods continue to evolve. Funeral service events are an opportunity to showcase fashion and expensive cars to the extent that families are increasing funeral insurance cover to make sure their loved ones’ burials are lavish – from the choice of casket and decor to the type of food and drinks catered at the event.

Is South Africa running out of burial space?

However, South Africa is running short of cemeteries to bury the dead in the traditional method. There are space-saving alternatives, but culture and some religions are obstacles when considering more environmentally-friendly burial methods.

Cremation, which has been an alternative for some time, is slowly gaining acceptance. In India, the practice of burning the body has for a long time been accepted as a mainstream method.

Other, newer methods that are found to have a much smaller carbon footprint such as aquamation, with 90% less energy consumption than cremation, have been developed. Yet, the description of the process would hold many people back from using the method, as it is perceived to infringe on the notions of dignity for the dead.

Growing trends in this industry according to the WOW report on funeral services and related activities industry are:

  • A move from rigid traditional religious or cultural traditions to a more personalised approach;
  • Rising popularity of environment-friendly operations and management by funeral parlours; and  
  • A steady increase in cremation as socially acceptable, convenient, and cost-effective.

Other methods that are starting to gain acceptance are terramation and tree pod burial methods, which may have more appeal but are expensive.

This brings us to the financial aspect of funerals, where, partly because of the emotional attachment to people passing, there is a flourishing funeral insurance industry.

Funeral insurance policies are offered by all big insurance companies and by funeral undertakers themselves. The WOW report on funeral services and related activities in South Africa describes the sector as consisting of very many small enterprises with less control over compliance with existing laws and regulations.

In poorer communities, funeral undertakers guarantee proper burial of a person for a small monthly contribution (insurance premium). That contribution is smaller than the formal insurance premiums on offer for a funeral service. Instead of paying out a defined amount to a member, the funeral undertakers take care of the funeral on agreed terms.

The role of regulation in the funeral services industry

While strict regulation is required for health and safety standards, the requirements should not be so onerous that they increase the cost of carrying on this business, particularly for those serving poorer communities, which remain in the majority in South Africa. A judicious balance in terms of policy and regulation of funeral services is needed.

Striking this balance in an industry that faces challenges including cemetery shortages and regulatory issues, is necessary, considering that smaller enterprises serving poorer communities are providing services to burial providers and communities. Convincing them to switch to newer methods will come in time.

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