Death without dignity? Rural funeral practices in the time of COVID-19

In rural South Africa, funerals are family and community affairs. They are not usually run by the state, funeral directors, local government officials or hospital staff. They are also not occasions on which one expects to find police officers on duty. Families and religious leaders are normally given relative freedom to bury the dead in a dignified way and according to tradition and religious beliefs. The COVID-19 restrictions do not allow this. By Leslie Bank, Nelly Vuyokazi Sharpley and Aneza Madini

Funerals have been identified as high-risk sites of COVID-19 infection, especially in rural areas, where most funerals still occur in South Africa. An elaborate set of regulations to the Disaster Management Act aimed to limit travel between provinces and prevent interaction with coronavirus-infected bodies at funerals. Police officers enforce sanitisation and physical-distancing measures, restrict attendance, shorten rituals, and limit the provision of food and alcohol.

As a result, in parts of the Eastern Cape, funerals have become sites of contestation and confusion, as culture, spirituality and statecraft collide. Many people remain confused by the new rules and regulations, as well as angry that some of the dead are laid to rest without culturally appropriate rituals being completed.

Visiting Eastern Cape communities
Researchers from the HSRC and Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape investigated adherence to funeral protocols in rural communities in the Eastern Cape during the crisis. They visited villages in 10 municipalities in the province during May and June 2020 as part of a study commissioned by the Office of the Premier through the Eastern Cape Socioeconomic Consultative Council in partnership with the Provincial Council on Aids and the House of Traditional Leaders.

The project set out to establish whether local expectations of dignified burial rituals and funeral practices could be met effectively under the COVID-19 restrictions and whether any adjustments to the regulations or roles of local stakeholders could better align COVID-19 prevention with local cultural and religious practices.

Funeral practices – for a dignified and meaningful passage
The study found cultural and social variation in the way funerals were conducted in the villages of the rural Eastern Cape, depending on local cultural beliefs, family traditions and religious affiliation. There were also differences between urban and rural areas. In urban areas, people are generally buried in cemeteries and much of the commemoration takes place in a church. In the villages, all funeral rituals, including the burial, happen at the homestead of the bereaved family.

The first consideration is for the body to be brought home, physically and spiritually. For those who die in urban areas, a process of ‘fetching the spirit’ (ukulandwa komoya) occurs before the deceased is transported back to the Eastern Cape. Relatives in the city ensure that the body is first taken from the hospital, or morgue, back to the deceased’s urban home to make peace with those living there, before embarking on the longer journey.

At home in the rural village, news of the death is made public and shared with the headman, who will help the family choose an appropriate funeral date. It is considered undesirable to have more than one burial a day. Rural funerals are large affairs and attract crowds of several hundred people, including kin, neighbours and urban visitors.

A small farm funeral in the Eastern Cape. Note the prevalence of officials, including a police officer (lower right), the distance between mourners, the protective suits worn by the funeral parlour workers, as well as the isolation of the man reading from the scriptures.
Photo: Aneza Madini

Funerals during COVID-19 in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape.
Photo: WSU research team.

The family of an elderly lady could not view her body before her funeral in the Intsika Yethu Local Municipality in Chris Hani District Municipality. No traditional leader attended.
Photo: Mandlakazi Ntshunungwa

A man sanitises people's hands at a funeral in Mhlontlo in the OR Tambo district.
Photo: Bukeka Shumane

In the week before the funeral weekend, young women from the village help the family prepare the homestead and food for the guests while young men help dig the grave. After the body has arrived from the city or is fetched (ukulanda umzimba) from the local mortuary, it is washed and the ritual, ukukhululwa kwezikhwenkwane, is performed while the elders and family members deliver messages to the deceased to prepare them for safe passage to the afterlife. The body is dressed in ‘new clothes’ (ukunxibisa) before it is displayed during the funeral rites. This often takes place at the local mortuary, where selected family members dress the body. If the deceased was a church member, they will be dressed in their church uniform.

On the night before the funeral, the body is placed in the main house, where members of the immediate family and close friends speak to the deceased and prepare the spirit for passage, also recalling the deceased’s life and achievements in private. Religious leaders may join the vigil.

The funeral starts early the next morning as the body is moved to a tent in the yard, where a larger gathering takes place. The coffin is normally closed to avoid exposing the deceased to everyone; some might harbour negative feelings of ‘jealousy’, the research team learned. This is why trusted close friends and family share their last thoughts and respects in the house before other attendees arrive.

A funeral programme might feature as many as a dozen speakers, including family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, religious leaders and a speaker from the house of the traditional leader. The latter needs to affirm that the deceased caused no ill or harm to the community during their life. This part may last several hours before the religious leader walks with the coffin to the grave site as they speak of the deceased’s journey after death. As the body is lowered into the grave, handfuls of soil are tossed into the grave, a practice known as ukuthela umhlaba, to symbolise the passage from dust to dust.

In Xhosa culture, funerals are not discreet events - they are part of a longer process of mourning and one meant to ensure the safe, meaningful passage of the deceased into the afterlife, where they will join the ancestors who continue to guide and protect the living.

The failure to deliver the dead into the realm of the ancestors in a peaceful, respectful manner can come at great cost to the living, causing misfortune and spiritual harm, according to the cultural beliefs. In such cases, the family will need to carry out expensive rituals to appease the ancestors.

The impact of COVID-19
Scoping and observational research in the field across the 10 villages in the rural Eastern Cape has revealed considerable disruption, anxiety and misunderstanding around funeral practices as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.

Case studies revealed that restricted access to the viewing of and interaction with the corpse had been a major source of anxiety. The regulations stipulated that the bodies of those who had died from COVID-19 should not be accessible at funerals, especially not inside the house, and should, ideally, be wrapped and buried in plastic, even if placed in a coffin.

In the Centane district, local authorities and police would not allow a body that had arrived from Cape Town to enter the main house or the funeral tent – the body had to remain outdoors and be buried as soon as possible. This caused great consternation for the family and relatives, who said that the deceased could not pass on to the next world under such conditions.

In KwaNikhwe Village in Bizana, in the case of a large funeral held in June, the body arrived on the morning of the funeral. The funeral service and rituals took place in the tent (without the body present) and the funeral parlour took the body straight to the gravesite, where it was buried before the funeral guests could bid their final farewells. The incident sparked outrage: The attendees said the funeral parlour had no right to do so but the funeral parlour said it would have lost its licence if it had broken the law. A similar incident occurred in Maya Village, Qamata, in the Chris Hani district. The passengers of two Quantum taxis from Cape Town arrived at the funeral to see the body but were told that the funeral parlour had taken the body straight to the gravesite.

During early lockdown, when alcohol was prohibited, local police raided several funerals to overturn drums of mqomboti (traditional beer). The sharing of beer and food is critical to the communal ethos of ubuntu at funerals. Beer is also needed to reward the gravediggers, whose spades and picks are washed symbolically in ‘soothing’ traditional beer.

In other cases, authorities attempted to shorten funerals to prevent people from lingering. In June, at a funeral in Bhongweni Village in Tsolo in the Mhlontlo Local Municipality, the body arrived from Johannesburg at 04:00. While it was dark, the family invited neighbours to view the body. The next day, 50 people attended the funeral, in line with COVID-19 restrictions. Fearing prosecution, the mother shortened the funeral to under two hours, saying that only two people had spoken. She cut it short because she feared that she would go to jail if they had broken the law. Later, she said she regretted the decision because the funeral had felt ‘incomplete’.

Finally, in Cofimvaba, a deceased person had stipulated that the family slaughter a cow and eight sheep on his death. It was far too much food for 50 guests but, not wanting to upset him after death or bring the family ‘bad luck’, the family carried out the deceased’s wish.

The state’s funeral regulations had collided with local cultural sensibilities and historically established practices in the rural Eastern Cape. The greatest anxiety stemmed from the wrapping of dead bodies in three layers of plastic to avoid viral transmission. This prevented the family from speaking with the deceased and, in several cases, even led to the burial of the wrong person. This conflict was neither inevitable nor insurmountable, but the state and private-sector engagement on funerals needed to show greater sensitivity to local cultural beliefs in the way the regulations were enforced.

Authors: Prof Leslie Bank, strategic lead in the HSRC’s Inclusive Economic Development (IED) division; Dr Nelly Vuyokazi Sharpley, head of Social Sciences at the Walter Sisulu University; and Aneza Madini, research intern in the IED