The price of death: understanding the township funeral industry in South Africa

224, Arts building, Danford Room
Wednesday 2 October 2013 (17:00-19:00)

Speaker: Rebekah Lee (Goldsmiths)

In a nation marked by continued economic inequality and profound AIDS mortality, moral questions over the profitability of the ‘death business’ in urban South Africa abound. Rumours of unscrupulous undertakers and their ‘scavenger’ practices circulate among township dwellers and accentuate their position as potent symbols of a broader and unseemly commercialization of death. This paper seeks to provide a historical and ethnographic perspective on the rise of the funeral industry in South Africa, and the role of funeral entrepreneurs within this key ‘popular economy’.

I begin by considering the particular social, economic and political forces at work in the transitional and postapartheid periods, when an African-run funeral industry first began to emerge. I then turn to the distinctive features of entrepreneurship within this industry, considering both the challenges and opportunities faced by African undertakers in what is regarded as a highly competitive industry. Finally, I examine possible gendered dimensions of funeral entrepreneurship and suggest ways forward for future research. This research is drawn from collected life histories, interviews and participant observation of undertakers and their employees at work, largely in Cape Town’s major African townships of Khayelitsha and Gugulethu and secondarily in the rural areas the Eastern Cape. It is part of a larger collaborative project on death in African history, funded by the AHRC: