By Lee Berthiaume
IF it wasn't for the large sign, the hearse and the stacks of coffins, it would be easy to dismiss Harmony Funeral Services as just another warehouse bay at the bustling Makoni shopping centre of Chitungwiza, near Harare.
Yet this is exactly the type of funeral operation, one of a plethora of "fly by night" businesses that have been popping up throughout the country in the wake of killer diseases like HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, and at a time when the country is facing unprecedented food and medicine shortages.
In Zimbabwe, where dozens of other industries are collapsing due to the country's economic crisis, the "business of death" is thriving.
Next door to Harmony, a sign reading "Coffins" is affixed to a wall with two arrows pointing down a narrow passage between two stands. Here a family has decided to start a business selling home-made coffins to anyone who needs one.
Once you've bought that coffin, the next stop is Sydney Marufu's stand down the road. Marufu and his family have been selling tombstones since last year when they needed to make money and realised that death was the easiest place to start.
"We started because most of the people are dying," Marufu said. "We see different people every day and there are many."
According to Casper Magwere of Homage Funeral Services, Zimbabwe has seen an increased demand for funeral services given the country's current situation.
"You have the HIV/Aids epidemic and many others," Magwere said, adding that 95 per cent of the funerals his company services are the result of HIV/Aids deaths. "And tuberculosis is on the rise. There is a generation that has to be served."
In 2002, Harare alone had 17 504 recorded deaths, an increase of almost 500 from the year before. The three leading causes of death in the capital - according to the city's health department - were pneumonia, tuberculosis and HIV related illnesses, all of which are on the increase.
Last year there were 57 524 reported cases of
sexually transmitted diseases compared to 49 166 in 2001, continuing the trend
for the third straight year.
While funeral parlours in Harare are busy trying to service the capital, they are also receiving steady business from rural communities where HIV/Aids rates and cases of other terminal illnesses are even more prevalent.
According to a manager at Doves Funeral Services, as of October 20 there had been 19 467 recorded deaths in Harare and the surrounding area, which equals roughly 67 per day. According to the manager, who asked not to be named, his parlour receives between eight and 12 new clients per day.
With so much death around, Magwere said there's
plenty of business for everyone.
"The number of deaths is increasing on a daily basis. I think every parlour would agree they have a fair share (of business)," said Magwere.
According to Magwere, a service at an established parlour can cost anything between $150 000 and several millions, depending on how involved the service is.
Still, many families cannot afford to bury their loved ones with even the simplest service.
In response, the country has seen an increase in the number of funeral assurance plans, which operate like life insurance. Still others have started to pay for their funerals in advance through pre-payment plans. This way, when they die, their survivors don't have to worry about coming up with the money to pay.
Still, even with these options, many people have turned to alternatives like Harmony and Marufu. However, Magwere and others say these alternatives don't provide people with what they need.
"A lot of them are fly by night in that they are here to take advantage of people's grief," said the Doves manager. "I'm sure a lot of
them are making a profit off HIV/Aids."
The main service that is missing, said Magwere,
is the counselling and the comforting that established funeral homes offer.
He said Homage not only provides funeral services but also helps orphans and conducts HIV/Aids counselling.
"We go a step further," Magwere said. "We are trying to go that extra step. These guys are coming into it for the money and I don't think it's very fair. We have to be seen to have heart."
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