Funeral business is now about fashion and style

07 November 2017 - 10:17
By Aneesa Adams
Joe Mafela's tombstone is a mock TV, a table and couch.
Image: Mduduzi Ndzingi Joe Mafela's tombstone is a mock TV, a table and couch.

One certainty about life is death - and it comes at a hefty price tag.

Funerals have become quite a business - with even the living requesting to be buried in style.

It has become a booming business for many - from funeral parlours to caterers to printers.

So popular is the business that the National Funeral Practitioners Association of South Africa held the National Funeral Indaba in Durban last Month.

Prince Gumede headed the initiative.

"The main aim of the indaba was to raise awareness around well-established black funeral businesses that already exist in our country, showcasing the different solutions people can opt for when in need of burial services and finding new mechanisms of improving the exclusions and neglect that exist in business," says Gumede.

Baby Jake Matlala's grave at Westpark Cemetery is   a life-size image of the boxer.  / Mabuti Kali
Baby Jake Matlala's grave at Westpark Cemetery is a life-size image of the boxer. / Mabuti Kali

The indaba hosted guests for a three-day event which consisted of a concert, a gala dinner and a conference and exhibition for small businesses to showcase what they have to offer.

As with weddings and celebrations in general, trends change.

The same with funerals. Long gone are the days when loved ones were wrapped in cow skin and laid in the ground.

People are now planning their own funerals.

Some are even going to the extent of trying out the perfect casket for their final resting place.

Neil Keight of Thom Kight and Company gave us the low down.

"Certain people would rather not leave the planning of their own funeral to their families for fear of something going wrong," says Keight.

Kerr's Funeral Parlour, who have laid to rest a number of prominent people including boxing boss Nick Durant, says on average, their most expensive casket is R150000. For a slightly cheaper option, the funeral parlour offers some at R8000.

Thom Kight and Company says that their focus is mostly on cremation.

"There has been a new trend lately whereby families opt for memorials rather than a full-on funeral hence 80% of our clients are going to the cremation side," says Keight.

They do, however, offer their caskets from R2090 to R35000.

The most common coffin of choice for cremation is the standard flat lid oak or walnut one at R3690.

In Islam, when burying the dead, the corpse is removed from the casket.  / Gallo Images
In Islam, when burying the dead, the corpse is removed from the casket. / Gallo Images

The Funeral Home of Tony Wyllie and Co revolutionised the market when they introduced eco-friendly custom coffins and caskets two years ago.

They can be designed to include digitally printed artworks, hobbies, memorable places, family moments and farewell messages on a loved ones' final resting place.

These bespoke coffins produce 40% less carbon emissions into the environment than cremation.

More than 15000 have been sold each year in countries like Australia, Belgium and Germany and the image coffins are produced in Cape Town.

Tombstones are getting bigger and much more elaborate. Something to marvel at is the gravesite of anti-apartheid stalwarts Walter and Albertina Sisulu, at Croesus Cemetery, West of Jozi.

City Parks regards cemeteries as "areas of remembrance to honour the deceased".

"Looking after cemeteries and crematoria requires being part historian, part archival records keeper, in addition to being a developer of cemetery grounds, designer and landscaper and maintainer of grounds and graves," reads the City Parks handbook, "Cemeteries and Crematoria".

Boxing legend Baby Jake Matlala, who was laid to rest at Westpark Cemetery, also got a life-size image of his greatness when he died a few years ago, as did music legend Mandoza.

But the king of tombstones has to be that of the late TV icon Joe Mafela, also at Westpark cemetery. It is a mock TV, a table and couch, made from granite.

Keight says theft from graveyards is common.

"Anything of value around the grave will get stolen, brass lettering is popular for theft. We always advise loved ones to keep it simple to erase any fears," says Keight.

There have been several violation of cases opened countrywide, as relatives found coffins swapped, baby clothes removed from the corpse and so on.

Even Durandt's casket carried heavy locks.

So Keight advises relatives not to be too extravagant.

He says over the years the trend in flowers has remained more or less the same.

The flowers of choice are a mix between carnations, roses and chrysanthemums.

Kerr's says it's not only the mourners who come dressed to the nines in the most expensive labels. Even the dead want to be buried in their best attire.

For some odd reason they have seen a rise in white gloves on the deceased.

"One trend that I have noticed, however, is that white gloves are common with men," says Keight.

Several caterers says the food to indulge is no longer just a mix of stews and curries.

These days some opt for three course meals.

World trends

According to, the top 10 funeral trends around the world are rather interesting:

Water Cremation

Cremation can be referred to as the disposal of a dead person's body through flames.

An alternative to it is water cremation where the body is placed into a pressurized metal chamber which is then filled with a water solution, and the temperature is raised to 350 degrees.

The combination of the heat, gentle pressure, and the water solution slowly breaks the body down. The water solution is a mix of water and an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide.

Home Funerals

There is a growing concern to conduct funerals at home and around family members as opposed to using professionals.

Interactive Headstones offers QR codes to be put on the headstones, urns and monuments of deceased individuals allowing a mourner to scan the QR code with their smartphone.

Here, the mourner is directed to a memorial page for the deceased.

Crowd-funded Funerals

With funerals leaving a hefty expense, people have resorted to seeking help through crowd-funding.

Memorial Reefs

Living Reef Memorial has come up with a concept to retain one's memory through nature.

A burial option for those who were deeply connected to marine life. It would entail purchasing an artificial receptacle for the remains. It would then be installed on an ocean floor and left to become part of the sea's natural habitat.


This is a rather peculiar way of being commemorated. Mesoloft is a team of pioneers who have created a way for your remains to be part of the milky way. An urn with the deceased remains is launched into the sky. At the appropriate altitude it will open up, releasing the ashes into the Earth's atmosphere.

Green Funerals

With the globe and its inhabitants going green, being buried in an eco-friendly way is all the craze.

Life Art caskets ensure that their personalised caskets are constructed from 97% recycled wood fibres.

Participatory Funerals

This is similar to a home funeral but makes use of the services from a funeral home.

It still, however, encourages loved ones to engage with the deceased through the ways they feel the most comfortable.

Themed Funerals.

After a loved one has departed, it is only fitting to celebrate their memory through the things they once loved. Organising funerals around a theme that represents something the deceased loved to do is becoming a popular theme.

Webcasting Funerals

In many cases, there are times where loved ones are not able to attend the funeral because of geographical transgressions.

Webcasting funerals is a big hit in order to include every family member or friend.

With South Africa being rich in diverse cultures and religions, it is only fitting to establish how our rainbow nation practice their funerals.

l In some African religions, life does not end with death, but enters into another realm!

Some believe that death does not alter or end the life of the individual, but only changes their conditions.

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This is expressed in the concept of ancestors, people who have "died" but continue to "live" in the community, where they see and watch over the living while they themselves cannot be seen.

It is tradition for the family to return the dead to their homelands for burial.

The coffin is taken to the family home where, if the mother and father are still alive, along with the wife of the deceased, they sit at the head and foot of the coffin.

Well wishers, family and friends then come and pay their respects and say their final farewells.

The coffin is then closed and the mother, father and wife of the deceased will sit with the coffin through the night.

This is thought to bring healing and understanding of the death.

The next day the ceremony begins around 9am, and well-wishers come to offer kind words about the deceased with the speeches being interspersed with singing, drumming and dancing. The coffin is then taken to the cemetery, followed by the congregation singing in unison.

The priest then performs the final rites and rituals and traditionally every person present takes a turn to cover the grave with soil.

The family members and friends then return to the family home and have feast to celebrate the deceased's life.


l In the Muslim faith, the deceased must be buried as soon as possible after the death.

A collective bathing (ghusl) of the dead body will then take place immediately after death.

Men will bathe men and women will wash females - but the corpse will be covered in a white sheet without exposing private areas.

The body must then be covered in a white cotton or linen cloth or Kaffang.

Prayer will take place at the home of the deceased as well as at the gravesite.

When burying the dead, the corpse is removed from the casket and placed in the ground - the head must be positioned to face the Holy city of Makkah.

Women are not allowed to go to the cemetery for the burial.

According to the Saaberie Chisty Society, the average cost of a Muslim Funeral can be in total around R12000. This includes food, the hearse, planks, kaffan and the grave itself.

However, the grave price depends on the chosen cemetery. [Source:]

Scattering  ashes at sea has become a common trend.
Scattering ashes at sea has become a common trend.

- In Christianity, when the family hears of a deceased individual, a wake is first held where loved ones are able to view the body and pray in a group.

A service is then planned and held in a church.

Here mourners will say speeches and recite a Eulogy for the departed.

It is then followed by the burial ceremony where men and women say their final goodbyes.

The average cost of a Christian funeral can vary vastly. It can cost anything from R10000 to R200000 depending on the family and individual. [Source:].

- Jewish customs allow for the deceased to be buried as soon as possible. In the typical Jewish custom, it is a traditional practice to perform a ritual washing of the body (Tahara. )

The body is then dressed in a plain burial shroud.

Watchers (Chevra Kadisha) will then remain with the body until the funeral.

The average cost ranges from R8000 to R15000.

Jewish practices as with Islam emphasise simplicity, the body is placed in a simple wood coffin not to disturb its natural decomposition.

The funeral is held one day after the death in a synagogue. [Source:].

- In Hindu and Tamil funerals, the deceased is cremated.

The body remains at home until cremation. The waiting period is normally 24 hours.

The ashes are then typically scattered at a sacred body of water. Hindus' belief in Sanatana Dharma or Universal Law is what brings them together.

This means that each person has their own path to follow in a continuous cycle of death and rebirth.

The Hindu view of the body is that it is essentially a host for the soul, hence the cremation of the body after death.

Each death of the body temporarily releases the soul from its earthly suffering and will take on a new host.

The cost of cremation starts at R10400 including the coffin. [Source:]

- While there are many people who do believe in a superior being, there are some who believe otherwise.

Atheists practice their funerals or memorial services with no
religious context and reject the religious views associated with life and death.

Their funerals are rather tributes to the life lived by the departed.

Both cremation and burial are common practices for atheists. The costing here comes from the food, venue and casket.