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TIMESLIVE SPECIAL PROJECT | Deaths, funerals and mortuaries during Covid-19

'Our ancestors will be furious': Covid-19 changes burial practices

07 August 2020 - 06:00 By Nonkululeko Njilo and Shonisani Tshikalange
The Traditional Healers Organisation's Mthandazo Khumalo has warned that changes to funeral practices due to lockdown regulations may see traditions being lost.
The Traditional Healers Organisation's Mthandazo Khumalo has warned that changes to funeral practices due to lockdown regulations may see traditions being lost.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

Funerals are simply not the same any more, as the coronavirus upsets funeral rites across the country. Families are simply unable to honour and bid farewell to loved ones as they once did.

Covid-19 related deaths have denied many families the opportunity to cleanse and dress the corpse at the mortuary, according to Mthandazo Khumalo, spokesperson for the Traditional Healers Organisation.

He said Africans observed many traditions, some of which were confidential — but that these are no longer possible due to the coronavirus and its associated laws.

In many black families, the deceased traditionally arrives home a day before the funeral. They are welcomed by family members, who perform a ceremony in which a cow is slaughtered. Family members will then have an opportunity to view the body in the comfort of their homes to pay their last respects.

Community members, too, have an opportunity to hold a night vigil in the presence of the coffin to pay their respects.

Typically, the corpse would be kept at the mortuary for almost a week to allow for family members to travel and attend the funeral.

In an event of unnatural death, such as gunshot wounds or disease, Khumalo said a ceremony needed to be performed.

“Usually, when the body arrives it is carried to a bedroom where their casket is opened and a rough salt is placed on top of it. This is done in conjunction with a procedure called umphafa, which is done using a branch of a tree that is later thrown at the gravesite, so the disease or cause of death does not repeat itself in the family,” he said.

But Covid-19 has meant these practices, and many others, cannot be followed under lockdown regulations.

Instead, mourners have a maximum of three days to finalise all funeral arrangements — and just two hours to collect the body and bury it in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus.

Khumalo warned that this may pose a risk for future generations as traditions get lost.

“These are our traditions, they must be followed even if it means we compromise somehow ... If people continue to ignore them, we will have serious problems even post-Covid because our ancestors will be furious,” he said.

Lungile Zwane, who lost her grandmother to Covid-19 last month, said burying her beloved gogo felt like living in a nightmare.

“She always dreamt of a big funeral, but we could not give her that. We could not even dress her in her church gear ... We made peace with her passing, but we are still hurt we could not mourn or honour her last wishes,” she said.

Sisanda Mbolekwa, whose father succumbed to the virus, expressed similar sentiments.

“The body didn’t spend the night at home, which was weird to begin with. We were not allowed to bury him on the day we wanted. We had to move his funeral to a day before, that we didn’t plan for,” she said.

“We also could not do two important rituals: one where we slaughter [a cow] and another where clothes and belongings are distributed among family members. It was really painful.” 

Both families said there were also difficulties with limiting the number of people to attend the funeral and watching the burials from a distance.