Collectively meeting the costs of funerals is the main rationale for the traditional Ethiopian Iddir. Modern funeral service providers have not replaced Iddirs but are supported by them in urban environments. MISGANAW GETACHEW, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER, explores the business side of saying farewell.
A black van stops in front of Bet-El Funeral Arrangement on Churchill Road on the afternoon of December 20, 2015, and eight unformed young men, between late teens and early 20s, jump out and proceed into Bet-El, one of 10 similar businesses in that area. These young men, who work as pallbearers, are not full time workers of this particular funeral arranger, but are available on call, with fees of 60 to 80 Br per funeral. The fee varies depending on the distance. Van drivers are paid 120 to 150 Br and work on a similar basis.
All of the funeral service providers have a list of such men to call when needed; but there may not be that much business, according to Afewerk Tadesse, 21, one of the eight at Bet-El. He has been a pallbearer for that past four years.
Six to eight men will be assigned as pallbearers for each funeral service, with the number varying at the request of the customers.
One of Afewerk’s employers complains about too few people requiring the service.
“For example, last week we only had just one,” said Demis Negash, manager of the 44 year old business, Seifu Negash Funeral Services Arrangers, founded by his father.
But it is a business that is growing, attracting new competitors even as changing lifestyles and social circumstances are gradually attracting more clients.
Demis, 25, has been in the business since he was 15. His father started the business in 1972 as a casket dealer. Now it has grown to a complete funeral service, from shouding to video recording of the mourning and the funeral. There are now so many in the business, that the individual businesses are going down, Demis says.
“Funeral services showed sharp increase in the past six to seven years,” he said.
That sharp increase has, however, not led to consistent work. But there is opportunity for specialized work in the business of providing funeral services.
The mandatory casket could be locally made or imported. There are some as cheap as 700 Br or lower, or as expensive as 8,000 Br. The imported coffins could come from the Middle East or the US, and they could have parts made of aluminum. Their prices range from 5,000 Br to 10,000 Br, but they are often used for the bodies of foreign people, because the boxes are too wide for the holes in mausoleums here, according to Demis. Coffins, varnished and covered with internal and external cloth lining could cost as much as 8,000 Br.
Shrouding in any case though is done uniformly, irrespective of the type of coffin used by well experienced persons. The corpse is wrapped in plastic and covered with a gabi (thick and large cotton shawl): that has a standard price of 1,000 Br. Transportation also varies based on the service required. Considerable coordination is needed for the burial of an Ethiopian who has died overseas and whose body is returned to the country for burial. Transporting a corpse from the airport or hospitals, to the house where embalming services are performed; to the house where relatives and friends gather for the mourning rituals; and from there to the cemetery costs around 3,000-5,000 Br. If it does not involve the airport transport, then the cost is around 3,000 Br.
Wreaths, too, vary in kind and price. Artificial wreaths made of coloured paper cost 70-80 Br while those made of natural flowers, usually roses, lilies and carnations cost 100 Br -150 Br. For one funeral they sell up to five or six wreaths of natural flowers.
Services now extend from washing, shrouding and embalming the body, to providing the casket, transporting the body to the cemetery and interment. And their services are becoming cherished by Iddirs, said Tariku Wondimu, vice chairperson of the Hibret Iddir Association in Wereda 6, Kirkos District. He explained that modern funeral arrangement businesses are assets for them, simplifying the work that traditionally the Iddirs undertook on their own. The funeral homes charge the Iddirs certain rates for various services.
Tent rental could cost 1,000 Br, 2,000 Br or 4,000 Br for 16sqm, 24sqm and 72sqm size, respectively. Where catering is involved, they charge 35 Br -50 Br per person.
More common these days is the video and photography services, which cost 3,000 Br to 5,000 Br, with the price varying according to the type of recording format.
The demand for video is related to the needs of relatives and friends of the deceased in the Diaspora who are unable to attend funerals back home, or who have to return to their countries of residence and are unable to stay longer for the full period of mourning. They take the videos back with them to have another episode of mourning while watching with those who could not make it to the funeral.
Funeral recordings are edited with dirge, subtitled with quotes from holy books and wisdom books. Funeral homes edit the videos by adding instrumental music and other cinematic effects.
“These video productions are considered crucial promotional tools, leaving a constant reminder or footprint of the quality of service provided by the companies and are therefore considered with utmost care,” Demis said.
But there are other businesses associated with death and burial.
“Changing lifestyles prevalent in urban areas, which are characterized by individualization and high settlement mobility as well as the rising cost of funerals have necessitated the demand for such services,” stated Yewondwosen Etefa, CEO of Ethiopian Insurance Corporation (EIC). EIC’s pre-funeral policy policy, introduced in February 2015, will protect the bereaved from financial expenses following death and ensure sustainable family income, he added. The insurance gives different kinds of coverage for spouses, children and parents. Spouses can buy an insurance policy starting from 10,000 Br to 100,000 Br, whereas for children who are under 18 years of age, the maximum sum is 50,000 Br.
Both insurance policies require a two per cent annual payment. Policy owners can also buy the pre-need funeral insurance for their parents at a premium of 5,000 Br or a four per cent annual payment. The lowest policy coverage is for 3,000 Br or a two per cent premium payment.
United Insurance (UNIC) S.C. started a similar policy for Addis Abeba area on July 1, 2014. The policy ranges from 10,000 Br to 30,000 Br. The policy owner has to pay an annual premium ranging from 30 Br to 500 Br depending on the age group and if the registration happens without any medical condition requirements.
“Our major market targets adults who reside at condominiums and apartments,” Azalech said.
Furthermore, for anyone who would like to have additional insurance in order to cover expenses related to funeral receptions and erecting tombstones, the company has prepared a pre-need funeral insurance riders policy.
With this type of policy, holders are required to produce evidence they have not been critically ill and hospitalized in the previous two months.
“I can afford to pay for the services, but will not be able to buy the emotional support I get from my Iddir mates,” said Misrak, a married mother of four, who had to rely on her Iddir members previously. Her Iddir gave her 1,000 Br in addition to the material and facilitation of the services at her home. The Iddir also took responsibility for the funeral procession as well as all members visiting her home for three days of the traditional mourning period.
Nonetheless, changing social situations are creating more opportunities for funeral homes.
“In the past seven years, the request for these new services has increased dramatically,” Demis said, adding that the sector expected more growth with the expanding condominium residential areas.
The first Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP) targeted provision of 150,000 condominium houses but 157,070 condominium houses were built or have been under construction in the last four years. The second GTP vies to construct 220,000 more in the next five years.
“The recent relocation programme for condominium houses has helped us a lot,” said an undertaker, who has shop around Gotera, on Sierra Leone Street. Increased urbanization, which could see 42 million people living in Ethiopia’s urban areas by 2017 could also be a boost for the business.
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