Designer death? South Africa struggles to bury inequality

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. Picture: Moneyweb

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.

Banquets, caskets

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.” 

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We need to mourn the poor cow as well

“Discontent has triggered protests and occupations, with 72% of farm land owned by whites”

If you are going to quote stats, please make sure they are accurate:

As per the governments own land audit, whites own 71% of PRIVATELY held rural land. Privately held land is a mere 30% of total ownership. Therefore whites own a total of 21.9% of rural land. This is LESS than the state owns.

The figures are deliberately being manipulated to drive the anti white narrative and provide for justification to destroy property rights. Its false and it needs to stop.

Look at the IRR report: “Who owns the land – A critique of the state land audit” for the real numbers.

Stats are rendered meaningless with an ANC education. They destroyed the public education system for a reason.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Yes, this lie is being perpetuated by lazy or useless journalists, who will not report the correct information. The same applies to the lie of ‘most unequal’ country in the world, always inferring that the whites have the money and the rest have nothing. The reality is that close to 100% of all state, SOE and local government employees aren’t white, yet they make up most of the 10% of the country who owns 71% of the country’s wealth. With huge salaries earned in the public sector by the fortunate ones (read that as ANC cadres), that is where the inequality lies. They institutionalised inequality in its current format and is solely to blame for this unfortunate distinction.

Some respectable teachings forbid flashy funerals. These teachings motivate the most sophisticated and/or wealthy individuals to be buried in the standard coffin. The most successful people die “poor” and have a modest funeral, while the poorest people die “wealthy” and have an elaborate and pretentious funeral. Your funeral is your “pedigree”. It displays your breeding.

What an elaborate way of glamourising being poor.

Oh for heaven’s sake!…get a life, or in this case a dear.

People will spend egregious amounts of monies on a funeral leaving no money for food or school fees. These people’s descendants will never get ahead in life.

Put me in a plain pine coffin; my family being able to carry on financially

Or you could try harder in life and have nice things at all points in your life and death and still provide for your family.

this article is the perfect example of toxic Communism and illogical left thinking that pervades the South African social fabric.

The best way to address the past and bury inequality was to turn the country into a raging success but the ANC is a wrecking ball of incompetence and hate and as a result inequality has actually increased.

Why bring white land ownership into this? Most middle class whites opt for cremation.

Are these facilities sustainable? When the space is used up, who pays for upkeep of the grounds. Seems like a long term ponzi scheme.

As with most issues in this country – Equality of outcome over equality of opportunity! And so the race to the bottom remains well on track.

Obviously this article tries to explain some of the local SA issues to someone who is not from here. In my opinion this has nothing to do with the general land issues facing SA and other aspects are also misleading in trying to explain local issues.

Due to SA diversity preferences will vary hugely from person to person even without considering race, culture or religion so stats and generalisation will be very difficult to apply here.

I also suspect that this will not be a “once off” purchase (money making) and who is going to pay for all the upkeep of such a grave as shown in the image and what happens to that once those that gave a S&#t about you are not there to pay anymore. In my travels I have often come across graves that are 80 plus years old and are in the most strange / shocking places, obviously when they were buried there this was not the case.

End of comments.

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