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HomeJanga La CoronaMOURNING A METER APART: How COVID-19 has changed Africans' burial culture

MOURNING A METER APART: How COVID-19 has changed Africans’ burial culture

In Africa death has been a communal event and funerals are normally extravagant affairs, attended by hundreds of people. But in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, government’s have been proactive to set measures that help in curbing the spread of the virus.

These measures include cessation of movement in specific areas considered ‘coronavirus affected’, placing the countries under partial lockdown, and most importantly observing social distancing.

In order to ensure social distancing, governments have banned all social groupings including attending churches, sporting activities, and funerals.

In Kenya only 15 people are allowed to attend funerals. In South Africa, only 50 are allowed while in Nigeria, only 20 close relatives are allowed in a funeral.

CASE STUDY: A funeral service in South Africa

Maaki Modimola, 52, sways along to a hymn in the yard of her dead sister’s home in the South African township of Soweto, a bottle of hand sanitiser swinging in her hand.

Modimola, with about 50 other people including pastors and a choir, have gathered for a funeral service for her sister, 63-year-old Mary Modimola. She did not die from the coronavirus, but it has nevertheless been part of her death.

Across Africa, centuries-old cultural traditions are being foregone in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen governments impose restrictions on gatherings and other practices around death and burial.

Death here is a communal event and funerals normally extravagant affairs, attended by hundreds of people. But now, in South Africa, only 50 are allowed to gather. In Nigeria and Kenya that has been slashed to 20 and 15, respectively.

In South Africa, rituals like night vigils on the eve of burial and the washing of bodies by family members have also been banned.

“She loved being beautiful, I think I would have loved to make her, you know, make her beautiful, put makeup on her face and like doll her up the way she liked, unfortunately, due to the restrictions I couldn’t”, Modimola said of her sister at the service ahead of burial, adding that finding her dead in bed was not the last memory she would have liked to have of her.

Philosophers and theologians say that not being unable to attend a funeral can leave some unable to accept a death or with feelings of guilt.

The treatment of bodies, especially those that died from the virus, has also caused upset.

In Kenya, for instance, officials have apologised after a video emerged of health ministry personnel in white protective gear dropping a body into a shallow grave in the dark while relatives wailed, causing an outcry.

If not properly put to rest, some like the Zulu culture in South Africa believe spirits will not be at peace.

Families normally splash out at funerals, making them a booming business. But now funeral directors and other service providers, from florists to marquee suppliers, have lost some or all of their customers.

No one takes kindly to soldiers at cemetery gates trying to do a headcount, said Monageng Legue, Chief Executive of Sopema Funerals, which arranged Modimola’s. Funeral parlours like his have scrambled to meet the new regulations while respecting customers’ wishes.

Customers were buying more basic packages, he said, and his business has had to find ways to replace or cut certain things from them altogether, such as a cow for slaughtering.

This had resulted in an around 30% drop in revenues, while there had been a 50% slump in the take up of Sopema’s funeral insurance policies, as fewer people were seeing its services at the graveside.

At Modimola’s funeral, chairs were spaced a metre apart and a single sound speaker replaced a choir.

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