Body bag in a hospital morgue in black and white
Body bag in a hospital morgue in black and white. (Image: Getty)
  • Funeral practitioners are running out of cold storage, amid a surge in Covid deaths.
  • They are also struggling to find burial land, with the industry association claiming that some plots are being “recycled”.
  • Government has been asked to intervene.
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Some small funeral practitioners are running out of cold storage, and struggling to find burial plots, as South Africa is overwhelmed by a surge in Covid-related deaths.

Over the past month, almost 13,300 people died from Covid-19, with one of SA’s largest funeral providers Avbob reporting huge increases in burials in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. In December alone, Avbob’s number of funerals rocketed by 300% in the Eastern Cape, News24 reported.

Amid sweltering summer temperatures, smaller funeral homes tell Business Insider SA that they are now struggling to find cold storage space, and that some are left with no choice but to store dead bodies on the floor of mortuaries.

In the past, small funeral parlours have rented cold storage space from local mortuaries and other undertakers. But these mortuaries are now packed.

Millicent Mnguni, owner of Thandanani Classic Funerals in KwaZulu-Natal, says the situation in Durban is a particular problem.

“If the owners of the mortuaries also have lots of bodies… you end putting the bodies on the floor,” she said.

"Right now, we are experiencing an overload,” says president of the National Funeral Practitioners Association of South Africa, Muzi Hlengwa. Hlengwa says the industry has requested that government help smaller directors by urgently building mass cold storage facilities that can be used by different funeral parlours who don't have their own refrigeration.

He added that another major concern for the industry is the lack of cemeteries and burial space, especially in KwaZulu-Natal and in Johannesburg.

Hlengwa said the association has been calling for the government to buy fresh land for a decade and said there were instances where people are buried on top of an already used grave, with some plots being recycled up to 7 times.              

KZN-based Icebolethu Group CEO, Nomfundo Mcoyi, told Business Insider SA that its daily pick-up rate from both hospitals and homes has increased to about 30 bodies from 5 before the pandemic.

To help deal with the influx, Mcoyi said they’ve added to the company’s infrastructure and have opened a new mortuary in Clermont. The group is due to add another in Umlazi which has space for 100 bodies.

Mcoyi also lamented delays at Home Affairs and said they added to the strain.

Under rules in place since mid-2020, mortuaries may only keep the bodies of those who die from Covid-19 for three days.  But the department of home affairs is not able to process death certificates, say funeral homes, in part because of understaffing and offices closed due to the coronavirus. 

“Just recently, we collected 25 bodies in Durban in one night. We cannot keep them indefinitely, but we have to deal with queues at hospitals and home affairs,” Mcoyi said.

Abie Molaba, marketing manager for Soweto-based JD Funerals, said the undertaker had to devise a Covid specific contingency plan. Its overall storage capacity can keep up to 50 bodies. Out of those, 30 are reserved for Covid-19 confirmed corpses and are stored separately.

Molaba said the parlour has had to work speedily through the necessary paperwork including death registrations to ensure that burials occur within 3 days.

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