Seven years ago surveys revealed South Africans spent more time at funerals than at weddings and with the 400 000 people who die of AIDS annually it makes sense. However, in a society where funerals convey cultural prestige, the poor spend enormous amounts of money on funerals transforming burial societies into lucrative businesses.
Just last week the BBC reported on our culture of extravagant funerals – which is often exploited by funeral parlours. It has been estimated that households spend up to three times their total monthly income on funerals alone. The result is a funeral industry which has become a law unto itself – largely unregulated by government and characterised by ‘fly-by-night’ parlours.
This sector has bankrupted many a poor family. However, there is one small player in this field who is providing affordable funeral options: top-notch coffins with a difference.
The Eco-Coffins Project, based in KwaZulu-Natal makes coffins and caskets cheaply from eradicated alien invasive trees while providing the unemployed with a stable income. This project arose from a collaborative effort between the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development in partnership with the Working for Water Programme, the UK Alliance of Religion and Conservation and the World Bank in 2005.
In accordance with the Department of Labour’s Expanded Public Works programme, the Eco-Coffins Project has trained and employed 100 people to remove about 450 hectares of mostly pine, wattle and gum trees around KZN. This biomass is transported to their workshop at the Cedara Agricultural College in Howick where it is manufactured into finished, high-quality coffins. The workshop can produce 70 coffins a day and since inception 8 134 coffins have been produced of which 4 823 were distributed to community outlets that have sold 3 180.
Making affordable coffins from the by-product of felling hectares of alien invasive trees is a great idea but the entrenched funeral industry initially met the Eco-Coffins Project with consternation. The most basic, rope-handled eco-coffins, cost R300 and adult eco-coffins are sold for R540; whereas similar but lower quality, chipboard coffins sell up to R3 000 at funeral homes. The project also makes high-end eco-caskets for R 2 400; whereas funeral directors sell them for up to R10 000. Child and infant eco-coffins are sold for only R160.
The faith-based and cultural fraternity in KZN and the Eastern Cape (EC), even several rural municipalities in KZN, participate as eco-coffin distributers. They make them accessible to the poor which facilitates the acceptance of these more modest coffins. Partners include the Christian Council, Amakhosi from 11 KZN districts, the South African Council of Churches in KZN and EC, the KZN South African NGO Coalition and the Durban United Hebrew Congregation. Eco-coffins are also in demand from other Southern African countries like Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique; and as far as the UK.
The Eco-Coffins Project has inspired further innovation with three other project offshoots emerging as part of their “Value-Added Industries” movement. Alien invasive biomass is now also being used in a school desk project in Durban and a venture that manufactures affordable church furniture.
The late Professor Kader Asmal was the first prominent South African to be laid to rest in an eco-coffin and others are following suit.
The recently established Southern African Faith Communities Environmental Institute, who recently launched their “We have Faith – Act Now for Climate Justice” campaign in Durban should promote this cause actively.
Read about the creative ways South Africans have pre-empted COP17 from the Impumelelo Social Innovations Centre, the country’s repository for solutions that improve quality of life for the poor. Visit impumelelo.org.za