I recently attended the most entertaining wedding … sorry, I meant funeral. I often mistake funerals for weddings and who can blame me. Funerals, you see, have become the new fashion: commercialised to the point of landing families in debt.

I remember my eyes widening in shock and sympathy when an acquaintance was informed via social media that her father had died. But my eyes were to open even wider at the shopping extravaganza that followed. The fabrics! The colours! The glamour! Even with a fresh hairstyle in place, my friend’s look was still not cut above the rest of her siblings. It was like a runway spectacle for a demanding audience. Whatever happened to the simplicity of black and white?

The bored community – aka gatecrashers – takes heed when someone dies. We gather to be fed by the mourners for at least two weeks prior the burial. This is a common practise in my village [I’m South African]. Servers take turns each day to serve the countless number of warm and cold beverages, the dozens of puffed scones. And you must serve and impress, for there’s the honour granted and being hailed ‘chef’ for concocting the most fabulous dish.

Wedding-style catering is a must.
Wedding-style catering is a must.

Showing off our fabulous lives
Funerals have become just another opportunity to show off our fabulous lives, or rather lifestyles. We arrive at the appointed venue in style, with particular attention paid to the car we drive, the clothes we wear (nothing less than the latest fashion), our picture-perfect happy families, the friends and flashy gadgets we bring along. Everyone’s at it, mourners and “sympathisers” alike. In fact we’re all rivals in this unmentioned competition, with the mourners gearing up for the arrival of the community, and vice versa. We don’t worry about the cost when “sophistication” and “riches” must be demonstrated and proven. Society and a slice of life shaped by the occasion of death.

We live to plan for our funeral, our choices tailored by the thoughts of our demise. “No, I will never buy a small car”, said a gentleman to me recently. “When attending funerals [in a small car], one has no space to transport mourners back and forth,” he rationalised with conviction.

The most expensive menus; discussions of the luxury cars to transport the mourners; meetings [plural!] to decide the right gospel entertainment. All the timely arrangements one normally makes for weddings have been transferred to funerals. And, of course, such extravagance equal money. Lots of it. And if you don’t have lots of it? Well, borrow to uphold the family’s name; worry later about your finances. For the sake of being spoken highly of, the status quo must hold. Who at this point would dare to argue? We bury our loved ones not in coffins, but by the price tag.

Funeral billboard, Ghana
Funeral billboard, Ghana

Big business
This festive phenomenon is big business, with funeral billboard/signboard markets growing and funeral insurance becoming a hot seller in several African markets (funeral premiums in South Africa already reached 4.9 billion rand ($494 million) in 2011). Families are paying to insure up to nine members, leaving no room at all for savings. Or worse, leaving the ones alive with not enough to live on. It’s probably not only because the unemployment rate is high in South Africa, for instance, that the “household savings percentage is way below the accepted norm for a developing economy,” as noted by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Funeral goodies must be handed out, printed t-shirts, mugs, flags, bags, etc. and not only at funerals of important people like Ghana’s ex-president Atta Mills.
Funeral goodies must be handed out, printed t-shirts, mugs, flags, bags, etc. and not only at funerals of important people like Ghana’s ex-president Atta Mills.

Debt
Families have been driven into debt because of funerals. Not surprising when you hear of 102 cows being slaughtered for a single funeral in Ghana. The Ghanaian custom of burying your loved one in one of those funky fish-, shoe- or plane-shaped is pretty cool, but is it always necessary? Those things aren’t exactly cheap. In Nigeria, funerals become weekend-long parties, with jubilant guests changing fabulous costumes like actors playing several parts in a play. The extravagance has grown to the extent that the South African Council of Churches was reported to be “worried” a couple of years ago (I wonder how much more worried they are now), and I recently heard that some priests decided to inspire behavioural change by cycling to and from funerals and leaving without eating tucking into the food.

Funeral guests waiting for food to be served.
Funeral guests waiting for food to be served.

That funerals are for the living not the dead has never been more true. We the “mourners” positively blossom and thrive when on the occasion of a funeral. The family gives the community a stage to shine, and budget be damned. Time to be merry as we demand the family grant us an after party. Oh, of course we leave alcohol bottles, rolled weed, cigarettes and matches, parcels of drugs, anything we feel symbolises the habits of the deceased, but what we spend on these pales in comparison to what we spend – and expect the family to spend – on showing off and having a blast. Why not just donate all the money to the family so they can have a decent funeral without getting into debt?

Yoruba women in aso ebi at a Nigerian funeral. All immediate relatives of the deceased typically dress in the same outfit or clothes made from the same material. Great custom, but since the garments usually aren’t worn again the practice can add considerably to the overall cost.
Yoruba women in aso ebi at a Nigerian funeral. All immediate relatives of the deceased typically dress in the same outfit or clothes made from the same material. Great custom, but since the garments usually aren’t worn again the practice can add considerably to the overall cost.

A more sober approach
It took a Muslim funeral to remind me we hadn’t all lost all sense of proportion. Leaning against a brick wall as I held my small plate of soft porridge, spinach and a piece of chicken, I witnessed a sober, solemn affair of a type I had not seen in a very long time. It took me back to the simple life. No excess food to be thrown away by the bucketload. No mention of a special budget for an after party. And no pointed mentions of guests who travelled from far and wide to be here today. It was different and charitable, and as far as I know no one was left with an enormous debt. Yet, there were many unsatisfied onlookers grumbling about a ‘Paupers funeral’.

Our funerals have always had a social aspect and that’s part of our culture, but I have no memory of our culture being synonymous with waste and money. I remember when a funeral was the responsibility of a community, with each family contributing with what they could afford so the family of the deceased did not have to shoulder any additional burdens. Do we really want to replace our spirit of Ubuntu with waste, extravagance and debt?

At the end of the day, isn’t a funeral supposed to be about mourning and remembering the dead?
At the end of the day, isn’t a funeral supposed to be about mourning and remembering the dead?