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Funerals highlight issue of private grief vs public safety

Mar 13 2017 05:02
Mandi Smallhorne*

I WAS listening casually to the radio, where a couple of presenters where discussing Joost van der Westhuizen’s funeral.

“But his casket was so plain!” said one. “I wouldn’t want such a simple casket. I want mother of pearl.”

It’s always seemed such an odd tradition to me. You’re going to bury that gold-handled thing. As the childhood verse goes:

They put you in a little box,
And cover you up with earth and rocks.

All goes well for a week or two,
Then things start happening; all is new. 

The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
They go in thin and they come out stout.

If my last wishes are heard, I’ll be cremated. But if they’re ignored, for heaven’s sake, please don’t embalm me. Bad enough that I’m polluting the earth while alive; heaven forfend I should leak formaldehyde and other chemical stuff when I’m dead. Put me in a plain pine box and plant a tree above my head.

Better yet would be to chuck my body out for the vultures, but I’m sure the rules haven’t changed since I researched this some years ago, so that wouldn’t be allowed. It’d be pleasant to think that I’d be doing my part in the great circle of life to some useful end.

(And that’s not what happens when you’re buried in a cemetery, not really. You have to have permission for a burial ground; you couldn’t just dig a grave wherever you wanted to plant a peach tree, so even burial unenbalmed and dressed in unvarnished pine would do little but feed the grass and trees in the cemetery, via the many little creatures who do the work. But cemetery worms and fungi and insects will do, if I can’t have it any other way.)

Funereal business is booming. About half the households in South Africa have funeral cover, to cover the costs of pearl inlaid caskets and flowers and catering and clothes. The funeral industry (which is about to get its own ombudsman, thanks to suspicions of shady practice like paying hospitals commissions for bodies) is worth about R4.5bn a year.

“When asked what a funeral typically costs, responses varied, but there was consensus that it is very costly – some respondents felt that it is overly so, and that an expensive funeral has become a ‘social competition’. For example: one respondent reported total funeral costs of R80,000, while others mentioned amounts of R10,000, R15,000, R20,000 or R40,000. All respondents emphasised the importance of providing catering for guests and the associated costs: ‘We wait for people that are arriving from far-away places, so we have to cook from morning until supper from the day it’s announced that the person has died'."

If it costs so much, of course the send-off has to be worth it. Which explains the thing about impressive funeral processions. Between me and some of the places I shop is the route from the highway to Westpark Cemetery. If I forget and use that route on a Saturday morning, instead of going the long way round, I can get, and have got, caught up in a funeral procession that is kilometres long, and occupies both lanes of Gordon Road.

If there are no Metro cops on duty to stop traffic and usher mourners’ cars around, it’s common to see the mourners themselves doing it, parking cars or motorbikes in the middle of intersections and waving their arms around. (No, in case you were wondering, this doesn’t mean that ordinary traffic gets catered for; we just get shunted to one side and made to wait as the never-ending stream passes by.)

The tradition of the funeral procession harks back to the days when some pre-Victorian big knob would get carried through a village or suburb in a black carriage by (possibly) black horses with black plumes. It’s a lovely idea that pays respect to the deceased, and I’ve rather enjoyed being part of the little ones I’ve happened to join, never more than ten cars long.

But should they be allowed to take over whole urban regions? (I know, for example, of parts of Soweto that are simply gridlocked come Saturday.)  

Apparently it takes guts to ask this question – one Chicago blogger who asked it was accused of being a candy-assed liberal sophomoric baby-boomer, to quote only the less intense insults. But, says Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, “The question isn’t whether funeral processions have value. The question is whether the value families find in them ought to outweigh their practical effect on public roadways and safety. That is a reasonable question to ask, and reasonable people ought to be able to discuss it.”

I agree. I want to know what authority is given to members of the public to stop traffic for a funeral procession? They are not trained in traffic control, not equipped with high-viz gear, and can – as I’ve seen – pose a hazard to traffic as a result. If a pile-up results, who will pay the cost of repairs and medical treatment – who is responsible? As Slocum asks, “Is there a better way to balance private grief with public administration and safety?”

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  opinion  |  funeral


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