For Zimbabwe's Dead, a Final Indignity

Zimbabweans struggle to find food and clean water during a raging cholera outbreak, while even burying the dead has become difficult in a devastated economy and unstable political situation.
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 11, 2009

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Noel Nefitali died of cholera on Dec. 28 at age 35, though no one passing by his grave site would know that.

The cheapest chipboard coffin and funeral parlor fees alone had sent his family far into debt, making a $10 painted grave marker seem a luxury item. With regret, they flagged the dirt mound with a jagged chunk of concrete scavenged from the street.

"I don't think he is happy," Nefitali's 21-year-old son, Gilbert, said in the back yard of the township house where he and 10 other jobless relatives survived on his late father's income from hawking candy at a market. "Because he was buried like a bandit."

The family's story is another example of the twisted arithmetic of crumbling Zimbabwe. In a nation where life expectancy is in the mid-30s, graveyards fill more quickly than ever, spurred by a collapsed health-care system, hunger, AIDS and a raging cholera outbreak. But massive unemployment and the world's highest inflation rate are pushing burial costs out of reach and causing proud funeral traditions to wither.

Some Zimbabweans turn to overseas relatives or elected officials for help, but for many, the things that once seemed crucial for a dignified farewell are gone. No more flowers or fancy coffins. No more engraved granite tombstones, which cost hundreds of dollars and are often stolen anyway. No more mourning for a week over meals of warm cabbage, soft cornmeal and freshly slaughtered beef.

For the Nefitali family, it meant no white gown for Noel's body or blankets to lay over it and under the coffin, according to tradition. Not even tea for visitors.

His death was a brutal and swift blow, emotionally and financially. However meager his earnings, Noel was the family's breadwinner.

On Christmas Day, he went to a party. The next day, the vomiting and diarrhea started. On the 28th, severely dehydrated, he died. Though cholera has been coursing through their suburb, Mabvuku, where sewage collects in street-side pools, the family did not consider that it had infected strong Noel, his son said.

On a recent hot afternoon, Noel's father reached into his thick cardigan and pulled out the crinkled blue receipt from Angel Light Funeral Services: Body removal, $60. Administrative fee, $40. Mortuary charge, $120. Undertaker's fee, $50. Total: $270.

Then, a note at the bottom: Paid $50 and "left phone Samsung Slide." The family had one week to pay the balance or they would lose one of their prized possessions, the cellphone. To the coffin shop, they owed an additional $40, Gilbert Nefitali said.

It is difficult to compare how much it would have cost in the past, before everyone, including the funeral homes, demanded U.S. dollars. But Gilbert Nefitali said he is sure he could have managed.

"Five years ago, it was possible. You could at least give your relative a decent burial," he said. "We could feed the mourners. They were taking Zim dollars then, and people had little, but enough to spare."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company