If death is the great equaliser, South Africa’s designer graveyards look like one of the best ends on offer.
With hot tea, wifi and soft sofas – not to mention native birds and a rippling dam – a new breed of luxury cemetery is reinforcing divides between Johannesburg’s haves and have-nots.
Memorial Park cemetery in Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township, is one of five cemeteries owned by listed company Calgro M3, whose fortunes are tied to land and housing.
The plush cemeteries they have added to their portfolio of houses and retirement homes have sharply divided opinion: lauded as a wise investment by some, derided as elitist by others.
In a nation where land, and who owns it, are sensitive and contested topics – a quarter century after apartheid – the business of dying has split opinion, too.
“Everyone deserves a decent sendoff,” said Lawrence Pooe, who buried his cousin in the cemetery last month.
“But unfortunately this is dependent on your pocket,” he said from the Nasrec Memorial Park office.
Grave plots at the Nasrec Memorial Park range from R24 500 to R360 000 for an eight-person family plot with extra features, such as plants and benches.
A burial plot at a public cemetery costs R3 000 on average.
Aside from the luxury add-ons, Memorial Parks promise a well maintained and safe space to bury and mourn loved ones in a country known for widespread crime, even in cemeteries. Mourners have reported graveside muggings, ransacked cars, and even coffins dug up to be resold to unknowing customers.
Land is a hot-button issue in the world’s most unequal country, according to the World Bank, where the richest 10% of South Africans own about 71% of the country’s wealth, and the bottom 60% control only 7%.
Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched a process to change the constitution with a proposed redistribution of land aimed at addressing high levels of inequality.
Discontent has triggered protests and occupations, with 72% of farm land owned by whites, who make up just 10% of the population, according to a government land audit.
Dead or alive, the inequality persists.
“The cemetery is an idiom for the segregation we still see today in post-apartheid South Africa,” said Thulisile Mphambukeli, a town planner and senior lecturer at the University of the Free State.
In Johannesburg there are 32 public cemeteries, plus a handful of private ones, according to the City of Johannesburg.
With about 14 000 burials a year, the city estimates there are enough plots available for the next half century.
“Designer cemeteries segregate South Africans on class. It is a continuity of inequality created by apartheid,” Mphambukeli told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Memorial Parks denies any “economic apartheid”.
“This is not an elitist space,” said Wikus Lategan, chief executive officer of Calgro M3, in an interview at the cemetery.
Lategan said the company buries South Africans from many religions, races and income groups and that his company is providing a much-needed service.
“South Africans invest in funeral policies that can cover the costs,” said Lategan, whose fees include security, maintenance and tombstone licensing.
The plots can be paid for over time, with no additional costs, Lategan added, making them accessible to a wider market.
“There is such a great need for this,” said Lategan.
“In public cemeteries, mourners visit graves fearing they can be raped or attacked.”
Police say exact figures on cemetery crime are not documented but local media have reported rapes, muggings and headstone theft nationwide.
“We are restoring safety and dignity,” Lategan said.
A total of 18.9 million South Africans have funeral insurance, according to online comparison website, hippo.co.za.
“The cost of a funeral is up to you,” said Masentle Zikalala, a government official who has reserved five grave plots for her family at the Nasrec cemetery.
“A ‘decent’ funeral can be simple, with few people and a basic meal afterwards. But generally, this is not how South African funerals are,” said Zikalala.
An average funeral will involve a cow for slaughtering at about R6 000, undertaker fees at about R4 000, a tombstone can go up to R7 000 and a casket for R8 000, according to online insurance quotes.
This in a country with a 29% unemployment rate, according to official government statistics.
Despite this, South African households can spend up to a year’s salary on a funeral, according to research published in the University of Chicago Press.
Although an estimated quarter of the near 4 000 funerals examined in the study had some form of insurance, another quarter had to borrow to meet the cost.
“We have funerals sometimes where 10-15 000 people attend,” explained Lategan.
This can all be very different in public cemeteries.
Khanyi, who asked that her real name be concealed, recalled her grandmother’s burial in 2018 in Klipspruit public cemetery in Soweto, about 15 minutes from the Nasrec Memorial Park.
“We wanted her to be buried with my grandfather, but the cemetery was full, so the plan was to open up my grandfather’s grave and bury them together,” said Khanyi.
But it was raining heavily and Khanyi’s family were told they would have to bury their grandmother in another cemetery.
“Six months later, we had to exhume her and bring her back to the original cemetery.”
The total cost ended up at R27 000, more than eight times what Khanyi’s family had hoped to pay.
“It was traumatic,” Khanyi said.
The service at Memorial Parks is “lovely and necessary”, she said, but the pricing “absurd for your average South African”.
Get death right
On entering Memorial Parks, visitors are greeted by security guards, ushered indoors and offered a seat and cup of tea.
This contrasts strongly with Zikalala’s experience at a nearby public cemetery where she always carries pepper spray and only visits at busy times to stay safe.
Mphambukeli said all people should have access to a safe and dignified mourning space.
“If we can get death right, then we can think about de-segregating the way we live, too,” said Mphambukeli.
Government should own cemeteries and mourners pay a subsidised, standard fee, said Mphambukeli.
“But this would require willingness from government, and possible collaboration from private sector,” she added.
Jenny Moodley, spokeswomen from Johannesburg’s City Parks, which maintains public parks and burial grounds, said private-public partnerships are “encouraged”.
In the interim, plots sell, money rolls in – Memorial Parks revenue increased by 66% from 2018 – and lives come to an end.
“Death is the one thing we will all experience,” said Mphambukeli. “I want everyone, irrespective of their backgrounds, to be able to mourn equally.”