Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Zimbabweans Denied Dignified Funerals

So many Zimbabweans are now dying that burial at Harare's cemeteries is becoming a privilege of the rich.
By Hativagone Mushonga
Luis Mutero's last days of life and his subsequent death portray the scale of collapse of basic services that historically had supported the common people.

Luis, 38, was one among millions of unemployed Zimbabwean youths. For much of his life, he was what is commonly referred to in Zimbabwe as a “small-time dealer”, the means by which millions of formally unemployed Zimbabweans eke out a bare living by selling essential commodities on a small scale.

But Luis fell ill. He could no longer trade and he became homeless. He was forced to hop from one relative to the next seeking shelter. As his health got worse, he was admitted to Harare Central Hospital, the main state hospital in the capital city catering for the teeming poor.

In Harare Central, Luis became a victim all over again. He was discharged after three weeks because the hospital was experiencing a critical shortage of essential drugs, including those necessary to treat his ailments, and vital equipment was breaking down because of a lack of money to import spare parts.

However, Luis was hit with fees of more than 3 million Zimbabwe dollars [about 29 US dollars] for his hospital stay. That was the beginning of his nightmare. The hospital refused to discharge him until the bill had been paid.

Luis did not have the money. Nor did his widowed and unemployed mother, who was told her son would not receive water, food or clean bedding until the fee was paid. For two weeks Luis lay in his bed in pain without food or water. He could only eat when or if his mother could raise the bus fare to travel from Mabvuku, on the eastern outskirts of Harare, to the hospital on the western boundary of the city.

She was already struggling to put food on the table for her other six children, and so Luis lay neglected on his hospital bed for days and nights until he gave his last gasps.

Sympathetic hospital workers who watched him die of neglect must have thought that finally, at least, his spirit was at rest. But, alas, the hospital's mortuary refused to release his body until the 3 million Zimbabwe dollars had been settled. Three days after Luis died, the family managed to raise the money and only then could they start organising his burial.

But now, to their shock and horror, they discovered that registered funeral parlours were charging between 30 and 50 million Zimbabwe dollars for the cheapest grave space and other funeral costs. Illegal operators charge about half this amount.

So many Zimbabweans are now dying - many from AIDS-related infections and an increasing number from hunger-related causes - that burial at Harare's cemeteries is becoming a privilege of the rich.

A grave space at the low-income Granville cemetery costs from 5.5 to 8.5 million Zimbabwe dollars during weekdays and ten to 15 million at weekends. This is in a country where the lowest paid people earn less than 5 million Zimbabwe dollars a month and the majority earn barely three times more, and where a large number of family breadwinners have died from HIV/AIDS, leaving families headed by the elderly or by children.

The Harare authorities are about to increase the price for the cheapest grave space to 18 million Zimbabwe dollars.

Joyce Chikomo, a friend at Luis's funeral service, said, "Where do people think we are going to get this kind of money from to bury our loved ones when most of us are unemployed and can't even afford to buy bread.”

One of Luis's uncles said, "I would like to give my nephew a decent burial. But let's be realistic. We can't even feed people who are coming here to grieve with us. We are not talking about sadza [maize porridge], meat and vegetables. We can't even offer them a cup of tea and slice of bread. So what do we do?"

Another relative, Stanford Mashiri, said costs were so high it would be better to bury Luis in a field, “We can't even think of ferrying the body to our rural home because of fuel costs. I am telling you, people are going to end up (burying in open spaces) or they will creep into cemeteries at night and bury their relatives without paying."

Luis was eventually buried in a coffin which looked as though it might fall apart if not handled carefully. Only a few relatives accompanied the body because they could not afford to hire a bus to ferry mourners.

There were none of the usual flowers and wreaths at the funeral in Mbare, one of Harare's poorest suburbs. Mourners could not afford them. They also went hungry, because Luis's immediate relatives did not have enough money to feed them.

For the people who viewed Luis's body, there was no doubt about the pain and horror he went through in his last days and hours. They are still haunted by what they saw and tears still flow as they pray that his spirit and soul can now rest in peace.

“People are slowly losing their right to dignity in life, and what angers me the most is that the government is also taking away that right of a dignified burial. People are being hit twice, in life and at death," Phillip Mutero told IWPR at the funeral service of his nephew.

Now that inflation is topping 613 per cent and predicted to rise to 1,000 per cent before the end of the year, only those with close relatives overseas can now afford to have a decent and dignified burial.

With more than 200 people dying each day nationwide from HIV/AIDS, it is inevitable that more and more families will resort to unorthodox and non-customary burials.

In an attempt to alleviate the crisis, Harare City Council has launched a public relations campaign to show that cremation is both quicker and cheaper than burial.

However, most Zimbabweans believe that the burial ceremony is an important preparation for the soul's journey after bodily death and that burning the corpse could also extinguish the spirit.

Hativagone Mushonga is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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