Updated: Nov 16, 2021
Sonja Smith of Sonja Smith Elite Funeral Group talks business during Covid-19, her road to success, and leaving a legacy.
One would think that during a pandemic, funeral service businesses are at their peak, but this is not the case. With the coronavirus declared a national state of disaster by the South African government, which saw the country go on lockdown from 26 March 2020, this meant people aren’t travelling or moving around unless for essentials. This also saw a decline in the number of road accidents over the Easter holidays.
“The number of funerals has decreased because there are fewer unnatural deaths due to the lockdown. Funerals are very basic now, mostly private cremations or burials with a few people at the gravesite. Many people are postponing their need to hold a memorial service until after the lockdown. There are no extras required,” said Sonja.
Death caused by contagious diseases such as Covid-19 are seen as high risk to people and the corpses of such aren’t dealt with as normally as one would for natural and unnatural deaths. Sonja explains that some of the requirements include: not working in full capacity; funerals to be held within three days from the day of death; and how to handle the body and more.
“Our staff had to undergo training with regard to infection prevention and control. We have to supply Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to protect our staff. Belongings of the deceased should be handled with gloves and cleaned with a detergent. Family members of the deceased are discouraged from taking clothes home; they may only take valuables such as jewellery.
“If a family member wishes to view the body of the deceased at the funeral home, they may do so without touching it, following all precautions and providing their own PPE. We may not remove the body from the body bag. Family members should not touch or kiss the body and should wash their hands thoroughly following the viewing. Adults over 60-years of age and immuno-suppressed persons are advised not to interact directly with the body,” she explained.
“The SAPS [South African Police Services] must be notified of your intention to hold a funeral service. You are to have no more than 50 mourners, this includes the minister, family and undertakers. Those in attendance have to adhere to social distancing guidelines, continue to take precautionary measures and a Contact Register containing details of attendees must be completed. No refreshments may be served after the funeral service.”
For more on the regulations, read the Disaster Management Act. Amendments have been made as at 2 April 2020.
Sonja holds over 20 years of experience in the funeral business. Sonja Smith Elite Funeral Group has nine branches across the Gauteng province. She claims her recipe to success is passion, persistence and perseverance. Her quote to live by is ‘if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life’ by Marc Anthony.
“I gained my experience in the male-dominated funeral companies more than 20 years ago. At the time, funerals were sombre and morbid affairs. Black, white and grey. I wanted to do things differently, introduce colour and personalisation, making funerals a celebration of a life well-lived. The journey has been long and the challenges many,” said Sonja.
While there is no insurance for a pandemic, business in this environment will sure come up with something innovative to cover their clients for times like these. Currently, Sonja Smith Elite Group live stream funeral services through Zoom and other platforms. Sonja says that this is an offering that meets the needs of a bereaved family and reflects togetherness whilst being apart.
Living a legacy
The funeral group is looking into expending nationwide post Covid-19. Sonja believes that her greatest achievement thus far was challenging the Constitution of South Africa on the rights of parents in the case of pregnancy loss, and says this will be her legacy. “I believe that not having the choice to bury or cremate their little ones born asleep pre-26 weeks of gestation, is an infringement of the parents’ basic human rights in terms of our Constitution vs. the right to dignity, equality and privacy. The court case was heard in the High Court on 14 and 15 November 2019, and is currently awaiting judgement. Hopefully, the outcome of this case will result in foetuses miscarried before 26 weeks to no longer be discarded as medical waste,” Sonja concludes.