Crunch time for undertakers as coffin demand due to Covid-19 deaths spirals

An increase in demand for coffins is placing immense pressure on funeral parlours, forcing them to delay burials as they wait for supply. Since the beginning of the festive season, the funeral industry has been struggling to keep up with the demand as the number of people dying daily has remained high. This has pushed the demand for coffins to unbearable margins.

Last week home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi said his department registered 10 982 deaths between the 4th and the 5th of January. The country’s Covid-19-related deaths have surpassed 37,000.

The CEO of Hloni Funeral Services in Soweto, Lehloholo Swarts said the situation was so dire that they had started trading with coffins among each other. Swarts said he currently had 16 bodies that he anticipated to bury over the weekend but only had four coffins available.

“What we do now is to run around borrowing [buying] coffins from each other as undertakers. For example, you call another funeral parlour and ask if they have the type of coffin you need. They also borrow from me…It is scary now. It is not just the demand for normal coffins but the expensive ones are also in shortage,” Swarts said.

The vice-president of National Funeral Directors Association, Lawrence Konyana said the demand surge began in the Eastern Cape, when manufacturers closed for the holidays at a time when Covid-19 deaths were on the rise.

“Funeral parlours were affected differently by this. Those ones who had stockpiled were not affected. Some of the manufacturers did come back early to start production. Most of the manufacturers are currently on a double shift system to make up for the drop in production,” Konyana said.

A manager of a warehouse belonging to one of the major coffin manufacturers in Johannesburg said the demand has increased by 70% to 80% and that at the time he only had 30% of the stock he normally used to have.

“Our clients, who normally buy five coffins at a time, are now buying 10 to even 30 coffins at a time. Smaller clients who normally buy one or two coffins a week are now buying four. Big clients who bought 30 units now buy 30 to 60 units at a go,” said the manager who refused to be named.

The CEO of Sopema Funeral Services, Monageng Legae confirmed the supply of coffins had been a problem since the beginning of the festive season.

“We are now having fights with families because we cannot meet their demands. We’ve had to settle for coffins that are available instead of those we want due to shortage. Families have preferences when it comes to coffins. But whatever they would have loved is out of stock or not available,” Legae said.

He said the struggle to get coffins had impacted his business as now and again the parlour had to disappoint a grieving family. Under normal circumstances, Legae has five to seven funerals per week, but now he has 25.

Earlier this week, the South African Funeral Practitioners Association (Safpa) said it was considering looking at neighbouring countries to get additional coffin supplies. But Legae said the idea of importing coffins was still being discussed among members of Safpa and no final official decision had been taken.

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