Affordable Funerals and The Use of Eco-Coffins

Pastoral Letter of KwaZulu-Natal Church Leaders’, May 2007

The KwaZulu-Natal Church Leaders’ Group (KZNCLG) brings greetings to the Churches, ecumenical agencies and Christian organisations to the Province, with whom it wishes to share its concern about the high cost of funerals. The Church Leaders would like to help develop a way in which families can bury their dead with dignity but without sinking into debt. We are particularly concerned about the poor, the unemployed and those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Therefore we wish to begin a process of reflection and discussion on the question of how to stop expensive funerals and reinstate dignified family celebrations.


To guide our reflection and discussion we have had recourse to the Scriptures. We begin with the issue of when the burial should take place.

Burial Within 24 Hours

In Biblical times, for reasons of health (early onset of decay) and ritual purity the dead were buried within 24hrs or before the next day. If a person for some reason had to be kept for a long time, up to 40 days s/he would have to be embalmed. This embalming of people would in most cases be done for the kings or other notables in society.

The Modern Times

We accept that burying within 24 hours is not practical in most modern situations. We also accept that the dispersal of families often demands that the funeral be delayed for a week or two. So we will keep in mind the costs that arise from these family considerations for storing the body in the mortuary.

Places of Burial

We also accept that legal requirements such as where bodies may be interred and where not, must be considered and that there could add to expenses.

Cost of Funerals The Cost of Coffins

We are greatly concerned about the mystery or secrecy that often surrounds coffin and funeral costs. In many instances the industry is very reluctant to release information generally. This raises suspicions of a cartel being in operation, and open exploitation of people who while grieving are most vulnerable to all kinds of psychological pressures and tricks.

The Three Most Exorbitantly Marked Items

The three exorbitant charge after the casket/ coffin and services such as carrying the body from home, to the mortuary, preparing it for burial, transporting it to Church is the provision of chefs, DJ’s, printers, etc.

The Cost of “After Tears”

Another area of concern is what is popularly know as “After Tears” the Feast and Drinking Party that follows the burial. Our quarrel with After Tears is that it contravenes tradition and custom on a number of counts. In the olden days it was friends and neighbours who brought food and drink to relieve the grieving family of the burden of offering hospitality to mourners. Second, custom decrees a period of mourning which includes ukuzila (fasting and wearing mourning clothes). Not only is “After Tears” an unnecessary expense it also disregards the family’s natural and emotional need to grieve.

The Four Most Important Points of Consumer Advise

So this is what we advise

  • Find out how much funeral services and caskets/ coffins should cost … that is, a low reasonable price.
  • Find a mortuary or funeral home/ parlour with reasonable prices … regardless of its location in your area
  • Don’t buy protective seal caskets/ coffins. They harm the bodies, rather than protect them.
  • Be cautious about pre-pay plan. Most lock-in high prices; and/ or are non­refundable or non-cancellable (
    • Have a serious look at the eco-coffin proposal.

The eco-coffin project aims to enable families to pay their last tributes to their loved ones in a dignified and culturally acceptable manner.

It tries to do this by providing affordable, modest, and dignified eco-coffins that will reduce the financial burden on the poor who also want to maintain their human dignity as they bury their dead in a socially and culturally respectful and acceptable manner.

Cost of Shifting Ownership of Bereavement from the Community to the Family

In traditional and Biblical communities death and bereavement was a communal responsibility, which include making preparations and bearing the costs of the burial. The burden was not left with the family. The community brought water, food and firewood, and assisted in all funeral chores and costs. Unfortunately this practice has been abandoned, and in its place has arisen the custom of the family having to bear the full costs of feeding all who come to mourn with them.

In order to address this issue, the churches encourage families to discuss and take a position on how they will conduct their funerals of their members, so as not to plunge the family into debt.

The adults must lead by example showing young people how to dress and conduct themselves at funerals. Entertainment, drinking, fashion parades and shows have no place at the funeral. Rather the form of behaviour shall include modest and dignified dress. Young people must be taught by word and example that funerals must be conducted with sobriety, dignity and behavior.