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Coffin shortages, price hikes and full mortuaries – funeral industry at breaking point

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Funeral parlours across the country are running out of coffins, graves and storage space as the demand soars amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA)

FUNERAL undertakers are having a difficult time explaining to their customers the reasons why they are not receiving the coffins needed to bury their loved ones.

“We are seen as non-performers by our customers, because we cannot deliver coffins to bury their loved ones. As we speak there’s a family sitting with a corpse, they want to bury their loved one but they cannot because we don’t have a coffin for them,” says undertaker Ludwick Ramathoka.

For Ramathoka, who is also the secretary general of the South African Funeral Practitioners’ Association (Safpa), explaining to a grieving family that there is a shortage of coffins in the country makes them look unreliable.

“To most of our customers, it is unheard of that they won’t receive their coffin because there’s a high demand for coffins and supplier’s aren’t able to meet the demand as companies are inundated with orders. Customers expect us to deliver on our promises, it is tough being a funeral service provider,” he said.

With soaring demand amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Ramathoka said they were also running out of storage capacity for corpses.

In some areas, funeral insurance and burial service Avbob has resorted to using shipping containers as cooling facilities for bodies.

“We have increased our container mortuaries to 22 units, which have been distributed around the country, and are in the process of equipping additional units to further increase this capacity,” said Avbob’s general manager for corporate affairs, Adriaan Bester.

“These container mortuaries enable us to deploy additional functionality to facilities under pressure from the growing demands of Covid-19. To meet the increased demand for coffins we have made the necessary preparations since we manufacture our own coffins, caskets and funeralware.”

Meanwhile, a number of South Africans say that funeral parlours are charging exorbitant fees for funerals.

A man from Johannesburg, who wishes to remain anonymous, said when he lost his mother-in-law he was shocked when he received the invoice for the funeral which took place last week Friday in Durban.

The man paid R13,450 for the funeral where only five people were in attendance and he had to pay a further R1,200 in cash for the priest, who was with the family for only half an hour.

“The funeral parlours know that those who lose loved ones are under stress so they will very nicely tell you that they feel sorry for you and all of that, but in the meantime they don’t feel sorry to charge you, even if it is a small funeral and you get basic services,” he said.

While his mother-in-law did have funeral cover, the man says the claims will only be processed once they receive a death certificate, however there are serious delays and backlogs in the issuing of death certificates at Home Affairs across the country.

Consumer Goods and Services Ombud, Ouma Ramaru, speaking to Independent Media, said that in some cases, the increasing funeral prices are relevant and justified due to the additional hygiene measures and personal protective equipment (PPE) required.

“The question is how much the prices have increased. We know that undertakers and parlours might increase by 10% annually, but we are in a pandemic, things cannot be normal in the funeral industry. For instance, there are protocols that need to be followed, which will mean added costs,” she said.

National Funeral Directors’ Association (NFDA) vice-president Dr Lawrence Konyana said that while they have seen reports on price hiking from funeral undertakers, none of them are NFDA members.

“Cost of funerals vary according to coffin or casket selection, services required by client and cemetery/ crematorium fees. Most of the NFDA members have absorbed some of the increases in coffin, PPE and operational costs.”

Konyana added that the NDFA would do all they could to assist its members or those of the Federation of Funeral Professionals in South Africa, which they are affiliated to.

“We realise that these are difficult times and we have asked our members to be reasonable at all times and explain the pricing to their clients at all times,” he said.