ONE feature of township life, almost as common as the chimney smoke and the shebeen, is dressing up in uniform at the weekend for a gathering with like-minded folk.

ONE feature of township life, almost as common as the chimney smoke and the shebeen, is dressing up in uniform at the weekend for a gathering with like-minded folk.

It is not work wear but the uniform of the ubiquitous burial societies.

Findings of a 2004 to 2007 study by FinScope, which could still have been done yesterday, bear relevance.

It found that burial society membership is one of the most commonly held financial products in South Africa, with more than a fifth of the adult population - 21percent belonging.

The research was a project by Daniel Schneider of Princeton University in the US.

Even a cursory glance at township streets corroborates the findings.

"Burial societies play a significant role in members' financial lives, commanding 15percent of monthly expenses on average and viewed as the priority expense by more than 30percent of members," says the study.

"For these, burial society contributions come before all other bills such as electricity, school fees and rent."

Women composed about 60percent of the membership.

It has been suggested that burial society membership - at 74percent of blacks - is associated with older age, less education and having employment.

Many even belong to more than one organisation.

With such a fervent wish to belong, you would think black people would be ready to talk about death, not just prepare for the eventuality as membership of a burial society suggests.

"We Africans just don't do that," says Professor Jabulani Maphalala, an external examiner in history attached to the University of Limpopo.

Blacks just cannot bring themselves to talk about death as reflected in their myriad euphemisms for dying such as ukulala, to sleep, and ukudlula, to pass on. Death is just too macabre a word for Africans, Maphalala says.

Another man of letters, Thandabantu Nhlapo, who is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town and a renowned African scholar, raises some thought-provoking points.

"In African culture death is treated almost ambiguously: it is considered as a time for sadness, especially in the case of a young person with a long life of achievement ahead of him or her; yet it is almost a subject of celebration, especially if the deceased is an older person.

"This is because in the case of the latter they are seen as going from this physical world to the ultimate status of all, that of being an ancestor. You must have heard people refer to ' idlozi elihambayo ' (an ancestor walking among us) when talking about ugogo who is in her 90s or over a hundred.

"It is a status of high respect because we believe that a family is not only those living, but those who have lived before, and those who are still to be born."

But why the aversion to talk about death? Is it a bad omen to do so?

"Whether the death is tragic or almost joyful, I think the reluctance to talk about it stems from a belief in the sanctity of the 'other world'," Nhlapo says.

"I remember that in my boyhood one was taught not to point at a graveyard with one's finger. You had to fold your hand into a fist to point to a grave. That respect for the dead also shows itself clearly in the customary law of succession, where in the rare cases that a deceased man indicates his heir before he dies, that indication is always respected by the family council that must do the allocation of the property.

"I think the reluctance to talk about death is simply the concern that the more you talk about something, the more you bring it on yourself. Yet, as I said before, many African customs consider the 'other world' as a relatively happy place."

Says Nhlapo: "In modern times people are suspicious of wills as much as they are suspicious of life insurance policies because these are believed to provide an incentive for your wife to knock you off prematurely. But this, of course, is the result of contemporary life rather than pure tradition."

But what could the consequence of not talking be?

Writer and retired professor Otty Nxumalo says "people fight and scavengers abound when no one took the responsibility to talk and provide leadership".

Families need to nominate someone to take charge of planning the funerals of their dearly departed to avoid the resultant disarray, Nxumalo adds.

He agrees with Nhlapo that the fear of tempting fate by providing an incentive was real enough: many kings would not reveal the name of the son who would inherit the throne.

These days though, because of the disintegration of families, people need to talk about death to avoid the unsavoury, Nxumalo stresses.

So, whatever the television commercials would have us believe, black people may indeed prepare for death - via their social associations; they just don't talk about it.

So braze yourself for more hearses at one funeral - each at the behest of people who could have ... talked.