In Box

The Final Expense

The Final Expense

Funerals in South Africa are huge affairs, with costs including everything from expensive coffins, to food for lots of guests, new clothing, and transportation to and from the ceremony. The price tag for the average South African funeral, according to economists Alicia Menendez and Anne Case, adds up to about 3,195 rand ($415) — a staggering 40 percent of average annual household expenditures.

That kind of bill hits families hard, the scholars explain: In households that had hosted a funeral within the last five years, family members spent 20 percent less than they otherwise would have on everything from food to clothing to leisure. Adults were more likely to quarrel, and families were more likely to want for food. Children were less likely to be in school — by about 3 percentage points for every 1,000 rand ($130) spent on the burial.

South Africa might seem an extreme case, but its elaborate ceremonies — and their price tags — are closer to the rule than the exception. In a 2004 study in the Journal of Human Development, nearly two thirds of households that fell into poverty in Kenya cited high burial costs as a reason. Peruvians and Indians who slipped below the poverty line also cited funerals as a contributing factor. Even in the "rich" world, 6 million Britons worry about funeral costs, another study found in June.

Given the state of the global economy, nearly everyone is cutting back. But funeral costs will be particularly slow to come down in the developing world. Deepa Narayan, coeditor of the recent World Bank book Moving Out of Poverty, explains that in poorer communities, funerals build social capital that is later repaid: "You try to invest as much as you can in these relationships so that when it’s your turn, they come and help."

Whatever the future benefits, many are struggling to foot the bill today. As a disheartened man in Zimbabwe told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, "Funeral costs are rising each week … and no matter how much you put in, you are likely to be buried like a pauper."