Funeral costs add pain to grief of Covid-19 deaths

Global demand for timber and a huge increase in deaths means the soaring cost of a decent burial is beyond the reach of many impoverished South Africans.

Manufacturers of coffins and caskets in South Africa are overwhelmed by the high demand for them as the number of burials continues to rise during the Covid-19 pandemic. The shortage has resulted in a sharp increase in the cost of funerals, and impoverished people are finding it hard, if not impossible, to bury their loved ones with dignity. 

Market experts say the shortage is worsened by the high demand worldwide for timber products, including the moisture-resistant chipboard and structural plywood used in making coffins and caskets. The market for timber has picked up dramatically as homeowners have been investing in their homes, in which they are spending more time than ever before because of lockdowns. 

This has been a worldwide trend, while the demand for coffins owing to Covid-19 deaths has remained high as well. In KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the shortage of coffins was compounded by the unrest and riots in July, which resulted in more deaths as well as the looting and vandalising of funeral parlours.

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With eight manufacturing plants, the South African company PG Bison is Africa’s largest manufacturer of particleboard, medium-density fibreboard and wood-based panel products. It had to close its plants in 2020 owing to the country’s hard lockdown restrictions and reopened months later to an increased demand for its products. 

According to Justin Berry, head of sales and marketing at PG Bison, the company then suffered a major setback after a devastating fire at its major timber plant in eMkhondo in December 2020. “During this period, we lost production of 20 000 cubic metres of particleboard, which is the equivalent of 400 truckloads, and when you are already under pressure with supply to the market, there is just no chance to make that lost production up again.” 

In South Africa, about 70% of coffins are made from chipboard. Entry-level coffins cost about R1 000, whereas the more plush caskets, which are differently shaped and have lids that enable viewings, start at about R15 000. High-end coffins and caskets can cost from R50 000 up to R300 000 each.

Many local coffin and casket manufacturers say they have tried to plug the timber gap by ordering from countries like China, but shipments take a long time to arrive and shipping costs lead to higher prices.

Working overtime

Jeremy Naidoo, director of KZN Coffins and Caskets Manufacturers in Durban, says the company is working double shifts to supply customers as far away as the Western Cape, Gauteng and Namibia. “The problem is the shortage of [chipboard]. We don’t know how long the shortage will last. Some are telling us it will last until January next year. The price is high. If our suppliers raise their price, we have no choice but to raise the price of coffins and caskets.”

South Africa is not the only country in the region to face this dilemma. In July, Namibian President Hage Geingob said the unrest in South Africa had left his country without food supplies and other vital products such as caskets and coffins. He said this resulted in some Namibians having to delay the funerals of relatives who had died of Covid-19. 

“The unfolding political unrest in neighbouring South Africa should serve as a wake-up call for Namibians to stop their economic reliance on that country and start producing basic essentials locally. Why don’t we make coffins here? Coffins are coming from South Africa. We have to delay certain burials because coffins are being manufactured and coming from South Africa,” said Geingob during a Covid-19 response briefing at State House in Windhoek.

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By 17 August, South Africa had close to 80 000 confirmed Covid-19 fatalities. But according to a study by the South African Medical Research Council and the University of Cape Town, there were more than 220 000 excess deaths between May 2020 and July 2021, of which up to 95% could be attributable to Covid-19. 

Undertakers say they are burying more and more people and the cost of funerals is rising. Julie Mbuthuma, general secretary of the National Funeral Practitioners of South Africa, says the recent price increases have been unprecedented.

“We have just been informed by our suppliers of coffins and caskets that they will be increasing their prices at the beginning of September. This is the fifth increase since the beginning of the year and this means that coffins and caskets have increased by up to 30% from what they were in the beginning of the year. It is the first time ever that we have had so many increases in such a short time,” said Mbuthuma.

“Covid-19 deaths are having a big impact on the shortage and the increase in the prices of coffins and caskets, but our suppliers are telling us that the shortage of timber and other materials to make coffins and caskets is the main contributing factor to the recent increases. Surely we [undertakers] have no choice but to pass these costs to the customers and this makes funeral costs even higher.” 

Becoming unaffordable

Ndabe Ngcobo, the owner of Ndabe Dignified Funerals in Durban and deputy president of the South African Funeral Practitioners Association, says it has been difficult to find a balance between demand and cost. 

“We always speak to the manufacturers to say to them that the price factor should also consider the socioeconomic conditions of the country. We cannot be hiking our prices because there is a shortage or a demand, because this negatively affects our customers, especially the poorest of the poor,” Ngcobo said.

There are also suspicions that some companies in the funeral services industry are using the shortage and high demand to unfairly increase prices. Thabani Masikane, the manager of Ithemba Burial Society in Durban and Umlazi, says the government must intervene to regulate prices as funerals are increasingly becoming unaffordable for many people.

“Our members are mostly the elderly and poor people. It is not only the prices of coffins and caskets that have gone up, but [also] the prices of graves [and] flowers. And now, due to Covid-19, we have to factor in personal protection equipment as well. 

“Our members were not happy when we told them that we had to increase the funeral cover premium from R200 to R220. It is clear that the funerals are becoming too expensive for ordinary poor people,” said Masikane. 

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