The Role of Local Economic Development and Environmental Health in the Emerging Funeral Home Sector in Mpumalanga, South Africa


Bulelwa Maphela


Senior Lecturer

University of Johannesburg

I am a senior Lecturer at the School of Economics of the University of Johannesburg. My current research focuses on the challenges of service provision in the townships.
South African


The efforts of the different parts of the chain from undertaker, to environmentalist to local government are too disaggregated. There needs to be better coordination, because access to undertakers is very important for families when their close ones die.

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Key Findings

There is a lack of coordination between undertakers, environmentalists and local government.
If undertakers are found to be environmentally non-compliant, they don't know who to talk to and get support from.

    How to apply research

    • Within local government a dialogue has to begin between the Environmental Health office (EHP) and the Local Economic Development (LEDP) . This is not to enforce, but a discussion to highlight the business challenges of the emerging funeral directors that lead to directors struggles with non-compliance.
    • The Environmental health guidelines cannot be changed because of possible environmental consequences that may ensue. The local government has to open up their strategies in order for LEDP to have a wider scope.
    • Emerging funeral directors provide a much needed service in communities. They do want to follow the guidelines of human remains management. However because of despair, not knowing who to talk to when they are found to be non-compliant, they continue to operate in the space of human remains management. Since this is the case, starting a dialogue may assist in making sure that the services are provided in accordance with the guidelines.
    • There are emerging funeral directors who are fully compliant, there are those who wish to be like their peers in the industry, but because of starting this business from a disadvantaged background, and serving disadvantaged communities, they are left with no other option, but to serve their communities, regardless of their status of compliance.

    What findings means

    The most interesting finding was that there is a lack of coordination between undertakers, environmentalists and local government. Environmentalists issue warnings, but there is no other follow-up except shutting down the undertaker. Undertakers, after being found that they are non-compliant, they don’t know who to talk to. This creates an issue for the duties of the environmentalists, because if everyone starts opening funeral parlours, it can be dangerous for the environment. The local governments do not support the business of human remains.

    Findings in practice

    The funeral directors have embarked on several strikes where one of the major grievances was that of not having a compliance certificate, though operational. Most of them are very small to run a mortuary because of the requirements. They end up outsourcing to established ones, where the certificate of compliance only belongs to the owner of the storage. When they have to collect human remains for their clients, in most cases they are not allowed, since they do not have the document.

    They have opted that, the government should provide them with assistance to establish bulk storage, in order for the smaller ones to rent space.

    They resorted into a three day strike, where no collection of human remains was allowed, from forensic, hospitals and homes. This strike had a potential of causing trauma.

    Eventually the Department of Health listened, and in certain situations like collection of human remains for storage was not required. But this does not help the EHP who is supposed to inspect where the remains are stored.


    This research was completed by conducting semi-structured, qualitative interviews of undertakers, environmentalists and local government officials.

    The two provinces where the research was made are not a representative sample. The research is not very generalisable.


    Emerging funeral directors/undertakers
    Funeral directors/undertakers are considered emerging when their profits, services, costs and where they are in the scale of growth of their businesses. That is even if they have been operating for a long time. Oftentimes, their situation is due to the costs of compliance to environmental prescripts. They prefer to operate at a sub-optimal, emerging level and not get into much trouble.
    Local Economic Development Practitioner (LEDP)
    LEDP is a notion that existed prior to the research, but this research was concerned with what an LEDP is within the context of human remains management. The role of LEDPs in the context of human remains management is double, because they both have to look at the environmental and the business aspects.
    The local economic development office and the environmental office in South Africa should be working hand in hand. There was no synergy between them and that is was caused issues.

    Related resources

    ‘Funeral sector threatens to strike’
    ‘Funeral sector threatens to strike’
    ‘Funeral sector threatens to strike’

    Share these insights

    The full paper is not available open access

    Maphela, B. (2021). The Role of Local Economic Development and Environmental Health in the Emerging Funeral Home Sector in Mpumalanaga, South Africa. African Journal of Development Studies, 11(4), 117-137