In South Africa, Death on the Installment Plan

Born of the turmoil in black South African life at the end of the 19th century, once-waning burial societies have been given new life by AIDS. The Masakhane burial society, one of thousands of such groups across South Africa, is equal parts church service, insurance agency and support network.

Anastasia Chabalala explained that all 73 members of the burial society must pay 30 rand (US$3.75) each month. In return, their relatives receive 5,000 rand (US$625) when they die. Members receive 3,000 rand (US$375) if a child dies and 2,000 rand (US$250) if a parent dies. All members must attend the night vigil and burial of any member who passes on, and they help cater the traditional burial lunch. It is hard work, Chabalala said. But then, quoting that morning's sermon, she said, "If I am not my brother's keeper, am I his killer?"

More South Africans belong to such groups than any other community organization -- churches and sports groups included. An estimated 3 million South Africans, about one in four black adults, are members of burial societies. Payouts vary from group to group. Some societies dole out a simple coffin, a cow for slaughter and moral support to members or their survivors. Others arrange for transport for the body and the mourners to the burial site, a banquet and a cash payout.

Burial societies are not unique to South Africa: They exist primarily in displaced or destabilized communities. With the end of apartheid and forced migrant labor, burial societies began to fall out of fashion. The fact that the groups are once again flourishing in the new South Africa shows the devastation wrought by AIDS and other diseases that continue to plague this young nation.

"We used to associate burial societies with old people, with our parents and pensioners," says Tebogo Phadu, who is putting together a national organization of burial societies. "But that has changed because of AIDS." Sonia Monama, at 22, is a member of two societies. "There is no money. There is no jobs. There is AIDS," Monama says. "We must protect ourselves.

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