It is a thriving business in Africa that inevitably everyone will be involved in. It creates entrepreneurs by the score but is plagued by poor regulation, fraud and theft. This is the rough, tough and unpredictable business of burying the dead.
A hearse arrives at 6AM on a chilly Wednesday morning in Paulshof, a suburb in the north of Johannesburg; relatives weep as the coffin is carried into the house. At the gate is a red carpet and cars galore. This is no ordinary funeral. It’s the burial of Peter Zulu, the man famous for his son, Gugu Zulu, a racecar driver who died while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
There are hundreds here and they have come to mourn at vast expense.
This is one of nearly half a million funerals that happen every year in South Africa alone. The business of death is worth an estimated R9 billion ($700 million).
It is thriving but plagued by the lack of regulation and crookery.
“There’s a lot of fraud that’s going on within the funeral industry. People are registered dead but they are not certified dead,” says Johan Rousseau, Executive Chairman of the Funeral Industry Reformed Association.
There is no standard pricing.
“The industry value hasn’t been even determined by Statistics SA because they only look at a small percentage of funerals and their contribution to the GDP but how can they do that when they don’t have the database,” says Rousseau.
“Why do you have to pay R1,500 for a grave site in East London, in the Eastern Cape and pay R400 in Gauteng? It doesn’t make sense to me. The insurance industry is using that unregulated market to sell their products and services, because they don’t have interest rates, by employing a funeral parlour as an agent to do all the work for them. The insurance industry doesn’t invest back into the funeral parlours at all.”
Rousseau says they want to create regulations that would set a standard and bring in investments to grow the economy, create jobs and assist emerging parlours.
“There are 25,000 parlours in the country, now we have to think how we advance them. We have to look at the laws because it excludes some of these guys from entering the market because they are renting facilities,” he says.
Stockvels are also not regulated.
Morongwa Broodie is one of thousands of entrepreneurs across Africa making a living from people dying. Dealing with dead bodies and grieving families isn’t everybody’s idea of making money – it’s her daily bread.
It’s a two-hour drive to the Broodie Funeral Parlour in Soshanguve, a small township north of Pretoria. Outside is a fleet of cars, down the road: a salon; a repair shop; a school and hundreds roaming about not knowing that the people who will carry them to their final resting place are just around the corner.
For a woman who deals with mourners everyday Broodie appears wearing a charming smile as she welcomes us to her office, where, on the wall is a CCTV monitor watching all the rooms.
She talks with her hands; she leans into the table to make a point. Broodie appears professional, clinical and tough – probably what this business needs. This is the queen of the business of death on her throne.
Little in her fiefdom fazes her.
“You want to start with the interview or should we go see the bodies first?” she says pointing at the CCTV showing a worker busy with a body.
Every morning, at 8AM, it is Broodie’s job to check the bodies and her premises.
“We have a meeting where we discuss previous funerals and how we can improve the business. Then I come to my office, I read my book, I Declare by Joel Osteen, it’s got 31 promises, this book keeps me motivated and it’s very relevant to every situation of the day. I then check my emails and do whatever needs to be done before closing at 4:30PM,” says Broodie.
Broodie bought the business in 2013, after quitting her job as a teacher her husband told her about the parlour and persuaded her to buy.
“I never imagined myself working in a mortuary, but when I saw the business, I realized I could do it. I worked with the previous owner for three months before I took over completely.”
Broodie describes the first time she saw a dead body as scary.
“The first time I saw a corpse it was an old man who was in a casket ready to go home. He was just sleeping peacefully. I touched him, he was cold. I tried to wake him up but he was still; that’s when I realized that he was dead. On that night I had a nightmare like there was a big casket next to my bed. I screamed,” she says.
“After taking over the business, the first person I saw was from a government mortuary, it was a gentleman. When they opened his body bag, his legs were literally on his chest, and the guy who was preparing the body just took the legs and was like here are the legs. I was so frightened,” says Broodie.
It didn’t take long to adapt.
“I went to the fridge every day; sometimes I’d go in the morning to see what they are doing when they pick up a body from home or at hospital so that I can have an understanding of everything. We are lucky that we see these people dead but what about doctors who do surgical operations, sometimes patients come with intestines out. With us it’s different, everything is just still. Then you understand that there’s no more pain here,” she says.
For Broodie it’s the death of children that upsets her.
“I become affected the most when it’s children, because seeing a small body lying there vulnerable is devastating. With older people we kind of already know they cannot live long,” she says.
Through all the stress the business is booming. Last year, they made over R7 million ($540,000) and employ more than 30 people.
“The way people are dying these days, there’s no week that goes without burials. Just in Soshanguve we have more than 40 funeral parlours and every week we meet at the gravesite burying people,” says Broodie.
Broodie Funeral Parlour buries five to eight people a day. Their caskets cost up to R580,000 ($45,000).
“We have five-star packages; we do elite funerals and have a number of burials we do per day. If there are more funerals, we move them over to the next day.”
“Death is more expensive than living. Let me tell you that we can run a funeral of R110,000 in a four-roomed-house. The way people plan for death is so amazing; they even take policies, excluding the groceries and the catering. We also did cremation with an expensive casket of R90, 000 ($7,000).”
The job isn’t easy.
“Sometimes we’re delayed because families don’t pay on time. We organize funerals within four days; we must get the programs, clothes, etc. On the day of the funeral they tell us that they don’t have money or policies, only to find that they’ve bought new clothes and catering is there, but when it comes to paying us they come up with excuses. We don’t do a funeral if clients haven’t paid for services in full,” says Broodie.
“When families enter the gate, and pass my office, I’d see them crying, sometimes they come in groups hurt and confused, I also become so emotional. This is a business that needs emotions and we have to be with the families until the end and give them comfort.”
Broodie feels safer with dead bodies than people.
“I usually say to my employees that the people at the back are kings and queens, in this business we need to treat them well. Those who give us problems are human beings who can ruin everything,” she says.
“I do routine check-ups; the people working at the back can put a lot of bodies in the fridge that aren’t even my clients. They can give other funeral parlours space and I wouldn’t know it,” she says.
Broodie has survived the tears and fears of the hard-headed business of death; she is capitalizing and plans to turn her business into a franchise.
At the Broodie mortuary, we are welcomed by a man in a white coat who looks like a professor. His name is Charles Khomo and his game is death.
Khomo, a morgue officer, has been in the business of death for three years. Every day he collects bodies at crime scenes, hospitals and homes.
“When I get here, I have to wash it and put it in a fridge,” says Khomo.
“Every morning I have to check on the bodies and whether the temperature is still on 0 degrees, not 10 or 20. It has to be cold all the time so that bodies don’t rot and smell. If the body smells, I have to take it out, wash it with chemicals so that it can kill the smell and put it back in the fridge,” says Khomo.
“Sometimes bodies come in a bag and full of blood, I have to clean and rinse it before putting it in the fridge.”
On this day, inside the mortuary, it is cold and quiet except for the hum of a ceiling fan. I get this strange fear and so does the photographer. We prefer the land of the living.
Khomo is busy with a body that’s going to be buried the next day. “You want to see, come and see,” he says.
A man is lying in a casket as though he’s sleeping peacefully. It is a surprise how comfortable Khomo is, considering he spends his day with dead bodies.
“When I first started working here I was scared. I remember they wanted finger prints of the dead for a death certificate. I was given a stamp and I couldn’t even look at the face because I was too scared. There was a time when a body came in a bag and the person was in pieces, he was run over by a train. I had to open the body bag; I couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman. I had to do it because this is what puts food on my table.”
Psychologists counsel the more than 30 staff who work here. The most important thing here is cleanliness – they have to wear gloves, overalls, big white boots and a mask. The fan has to be on at all times.
“My biggest challenge is picking up an overweight person from a four-roomed house alone,” he says.
Pain often comes with the job.
“Last year, it was tough when I lost my mother in September to diabetes, my niece died while giving birth, my uncle and cousin died from illness in December. All four of my family members were lying in that fridge, at the same time. I hated this place but then I asked myself, if I can’t do this job who’s going to do it?” he says, shaking his head.
Khomo opens the massive fridge with three bodies, neatly tucked in cream body bags, each with a tag on the left foot.
“The toe tags are very important to avoid confusion and mixing up the bodies. On these tags we write the name of the deceased, who picked them up, where we picked them up and contact numbers,” says Khomo.
Just another day in the morgue.
There is an app for everything these days. Now there is an app for funerals that takes you 30 minutes to arrange a burial.
This is the work of South African entrepreneur Lebohang Khitsane, CEO and founder of Bataung Memorials. The app was launched at the end of July. He named it The Jacob’s Bridge after his late father.
“It’s a portal where people can google funerals and coffins. It will lead them to our page which has a display of coffins and tombstones. We are also in partnership with different undertakers and we connect them with people depending on their preferences. We also connect people with clothing designers and psychologists,” says Khitsane.
“It is very convenient, they don’t have to go to mortuaries, we connect them with caterers, tents, decors, tombstones everything that has to do with a funeral. We want to save them time; people should spend more time mourning than running around searching for suppliers.”
It took Khitsane two years to build the app.
“A friend asked me to connect him with an undertaker that I know, I did. We did a checklist and managed to organize everything within 30 minutes, including tents, caterers, coffin. I said to myself this could be a lucrative business,” says Khitsane.
Entrepreneurship was always in Khitsane’s blood; his first business was a printing company, then he imported clothes from Germany. Khitsane was born and raised in Katlehong, a township east of Johannesburg; his father was a welder.
“I never thought I’d be in the business of death industry. My mother died when I was six and I hated going to the graveyard. But now I go there literally every day,” says Khitsane.
In 2004, Khitsane overcame his fear to found Bataung Memorials.
“The tombstones are characterized according to the personality of the deceased. If you are a musician your tombstone will have a stage and a microphone. A soccer player will have a pitch and a ball. Each and every stone has a story behind it.”
Khitsane’s work goes beyond the ordinary. He created a statue for former South African President Thabo Mbeki and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In 2013, he created a braille tombstone for blind people and a barcode epitaph.
“People wanted long messages written on a stone and it wasn’t always possible, so we created a QR code that can be placed on the tombstone. When you scan it with your tablet or phone it immediately takes you to the photos, history and videos of the deceased. You can also leave a message of condolence for the family,” says Khitsane.
At a time when many businesses are struggling, the business of death is flourishing. Bataung Memorial’s annual turnover is $3 million. Their tombstones can cost up to R1 million ($77,500). Clearly death is as expensive as living.
“At the moment we are working on a tombstone that cost R2.6 million ($200,000). It’s huge, four meters high; it’s sitting on a 16-square-meter space of the grave. Its weight can be 34 tons. The foundations and concrete work is over R400,000 ($31,000) because we need to put proper foundations, beams and steel.”
Bataung Memorial has made 15,000 tombstones for African families living as far as Australia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland and Malawi.
His design of late South African actor Joe Mafela’s tombstone (a giant stone which is a portrayal of a lounge, with a TV and couch/sitting bench) was trending on social media, with many arguing over it.
As long as the deceased’s family is at peace, Khitsane is content. “It is a very sensitive business because we deal with emotional people and sometimes people tend to be unreasonable, but we have to redo the design until they are happy.”
(Photos by Motlabana Monnakgotla)