A funeral expo being held at Joburg’s Kibler Park suburb is dead quiet. But much information is being shared on the difference between a casket and a coffin.

Expo has stylish choices for dearly departed

April 15 2010 at 11:26am
By Kanina Foss
Kibler Park may be the quietest suburb in Joburg. A funeral expo being held there is dead quiet.

Exhibitors acquainted with the hushed tones of mourning are not pushy salespeople and it’s possible to browse all 31 stalls of coffins, caskets and wreaths without once feeling pressured into choosing between Windsor or wraparound handles, pongee or satin interiors.

One exhibitor sounds almost apologetic as she pitches a sale to a funeral director. “This casket will move in your area,” she breathes.

It’s not that competition is weak. According to Pam Govender from South Africa Funeral Supplies, more and more companies have been entering the market.

They have to keep coming up with new designs to satisfy picky funeral directors who want cutting-edge products.

Govender is from Durban, but she attends the funeral expo every year. She sells caskets only, not coffins.

“There’s such a major difference, you won’t believe,” she says, pointing to a stall across the hall. “See that fish-shaped box? That’s a coffin.”

Apart from the difference in shape (a casket is rectangular), caskets have more expensive accessories than coffins.

These include cranks to tilt the bed (for a better view of the dead), and screw-out glass capsules for written messages from loved ones.

Eighty percent of Govender’s clients are black. “In some cultures you have to have the best,” she says, running her hand across the glossy finish of a casket imported from the US.

“This is like a Mercedes. That,” she says, pointing to the fish shape, “is a VW.”

Touching a casket is apparently an important part of the purchasing process. “Clients want to feel a casket. They don’t want to buy a casket out of a catalogue. That’s why undertakers have showrooms,” says Govender.

Also at the expo, hidden behind stalls of plastic flowers, clouds of peach chiffon and a pair of purple, velvet funeral curtains was the Sonja Smith Funeral Group.

Sonja Smith herself, exuding all the understated charm of a practised funeral director, introduced a range called Natural Woven Products, imported from Indonesia and featuring coffins woven from natural fibres like seagrass and cocostick.

They are biodegradable and made from easily renewable resources that don’t pollute the atmosphere when they are burnt in crematoriums.

“The eco-friendly trend overseas is starting to flow into South Africa.” says Smith.

The natural caskets for babies are particularly popular. “It’s soft on the eye, it doesn’t look like a casket,” says Smith.

A racket interrupts the quiet in the exhibition hall. It’s the boom-box stall in the front. Amazing Grace echoes from a suitcase-sized speaker on wheels.

“I call it the amazing box,” says Govender. “It has an MP3 player and three mikes, and it charges like a cellphone. It’s perfect for rural areas. You can do speeches, sermons and music.”

A crowd gathers around the boom-box as an exhibitor points out features. One thing is clear: The business of death has never been more alive.