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Unrelenting Tide of AIDS Erodes Burial Traditions

January 12, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

BRONVILLE TOWNSHIP, South Africa — The mother rises from her deathbed to bury her baby boy. She slumps in a wheelchair borrowed for the occasion, and an elderly relative must help hold her head up so that she can watch the body descend into the red earth.

The casket is heartbreakingly small, and though Evelyn Matule weeps for her child, her eyes are dry. Sickness and despair have stolen her tears.

Alfred is the second boy Matule has lost in a year to a disease also racking her body: AIDS. A toddler's coffin is mercifully inexpensive, but the earlier death left Matule and her family so strapped that they will serve only butter sandwiches to the few guests.

On one side of the boy's grave in this township outside the city of Welkom in central South Africa are fresh heaps of loam, each new grave marked with numbered aluminum tags, baby rattles and prescription bottles for remedies that didn't save the victims. A dozen open graves lie to the right. In less than a month, they will be full.

AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death in many places in the region, filling some city cemeteries faster than new ones can be added.

On weekends, funeral processions of cars, pickup trucks and standing-room-only chartered buses snarl traffic for miles around major graveyards. Burial insurance policies have become more exclusive, and "burial clubs," which pool money for funerals, are going bankrupt. Municipal authorities and funeral home associations report an increasing number of fraudulent undertakers and grave robbers.

"The pandemic is changing the way we bury the dead," said Alan Buff, who oversees Johannesburg's cemeteries. "Five years ago, Johannesburg was accommodating 15,000 burials every year. Now we've got 20,000, and Johannesburg could expect to have 70,000 burials a year by 2010, at the height of the epidemic."

One in every nine South Africans -- 4.7 million people -- has HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. The United Nations estimated that AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, killed 2.4 million people in sub-Saharan Africa last year. In addition, the disease has contributed to the decline of agriculture in southern Africa and a food shortage endangering 15 million.

During a recent speech in Johannesburg, Stephen Lewis, the U.N. envoy for AIDS in Africa, put the crisis in apocalyptic terms.

"There are no precedents for what is happening in Africa right now," he said. "Not the 'Black Death' of the Middle Ages, not the wars of the 20th century -- nothing has prepared us for the catastrophic mixture of AIDS and famine."

In many cases, caring for the sick and respecting the dead are depleting family finances in this impoverished nation. One study showed that in some rural communities, families were spending as much as 60% of their annual income on funerals, which typically cost $400 to $800 each.

Frikke Booysen, a sociology professor at the University of the Free State in the city of Bloemfontein, said some families would rather take food from their own mouths than skimp on funerals for loved ones.

"Some people have started buying cheaper coffins -- even cardboard boxes," he said. "But tradition and culture demand that people avoid that.

"Cremation would be cheaper, but most African cultures don't believe in that either. They believe that a person should be buried in a coffin, in the ground. And normally, families around here will slaughter an ox -- so they have to buy that too if they don't already have their own animal."

Near the center of South Africa, in the dusty township of Thabong, Agnes Kaeane, 59, has outlived all but one of her three children and is the only able-bodied member of her family.

Kaeane's 26-year-old daughter, Justina, sits against the plywood wall of their shanty, her face gaunt and her bones sharp and angular under the skin. A year ago she lost her husband to AIDS, and now she suffers from it as well. Kaeane's only surviving grandson lies feverish and ailing on the family bed. His mother and infant brother died last year.

Over the wails of children in neighboring shacks, Kaeane says she is grateful to have a job cleaning houses in nearby white suburbs for $35 a month. But after three funerals in a year, Kaeane has no money to bury her only son -- he died two weeks earlier. Although a $4-a-month burial club has provided a coffin, Kaeane hasn't been able to afford a grave plot nor food for the traditional feast she provided at her eldest daughter's funeral.

"If I fail, it will be as if I am favoring one child over the other," she said, adding that she needs $250 for a cow and vegetables for guests. With so many funerals, families are competing for mourners. "They don't visit people who have nothing," she said.

In Soweto, South Africa's largest township, Sopema Funeral Services does a brisk business renting refrigeration space to families too poor to hire a funeral home. But sometimes, they cannot even afford Sopema's reduced rates.

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