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

'There is not a day that we are quiet': funeral parlours on soaring death rate

Gauteng mortuary workers say they are 'worked off their feet' as bodies pile up

07 August 2020 - 06:30 By Graeme Hosken
Johannes Mandlathi, a carpenter at Malusi Coffin Manufacturers in Emdeni, Soweto primes a coffin before hand-painting it. The manufacturers say demand for coffins and caskets has gone up due to the number of Covid-19 related deaths.
Johannes Mandlathi, a carpenter at Malusi Coffin Manufacturers in Emdeni, Soweto primes a coffin before hand-painting it. The manufacturers say demand for coffins and caskets has gone up due to the number of Covid-19 related deaths.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

The surge in Covid-19 deaths has Gauteng’s state mortuaries and private funeral parlours under pressure as they battle to process the dead.

Disaster Management Act regulations require autopsies on those who have died from Covid-19 to be conducted and bodies buried within a week of death. Difficulties many families have in reaching morgues to claim their loved ones remains, however, mean that bodies are piling up fast.

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Gauteng’s state mortuaries, which include morgues at government hospitals and can hold 3,374 bodies, were 43% full on July 31. State mortuary workers who spoke to TimesLIVE report being “worked off their feet”.

“It just does not stop. Usually we would be called out between three to five times a night, now it’s up to 10 times a night,” said a Hillbrow mortuary worker, who asked not to be named. He said bodies were quickly piling up with families, especially those living in other provinces, taking a long time to collect their loved ones.

Sonja Smith, who owns Sonja Smith Funeral Services, which has offices in Pretoria, Centurion and Johannesburg, said by last month, their burial numbers had more than doubled, from 75 funerals last July.

“Currently we are conducting eight funerals a day. I have had to hire three extra staff to just keep up with number funerals. The new staff help prepare the bodies for burials and in managing the daily operations,” she said.

“There is not a day that we are quiet. My staff are constantly collecting bodies, especially at night.”

She said over 25% those who they buried had died from Covid-19.

“The majority of those that we bury are the elderly. What is really concerning is how many people are dying in retirement homes from coronavirus.”

According to a weekly death analysis data report release by the Medical Research Council (SAMRC), by July 28 there were over 28,000 excess natural deaths — four times the number of deaths directly attributed to Covid-19 on the same date.

The council analyses both natural and unnatural causes of death. Gauteng’s natural deaths are 106% higher compared to previous years, with the province recording an excess of 8,269 natural deaths. Between May 6 and July 28, Johannesburg recorded an excess of 2,988 natural deaths, Ekurhuleni 2,521 and Tshwane 1,157.

TimesLIVE reported that co-author of the council weekly reports, Prof Debbie Bradshaw, said: “The timing and geographic pattern leaves no room to question whether this is associated with the Covid-19 epidemic.”

Council researchers believe most excess deaths are “collateral deaths” linked to difficulties in the health care system caused by the burden of Covid-19.

“It is not unexpected that the excess natural deaths reported are higher than the official Covid-19 deaths report,” council president and CEO Prof Glenda Gray said last week.

The situation has become so dire that Avbob funeral service has commissioned specially designed refrigeration containers to handle the growing number of Covid-19 deaths.

Avbob general manager Pieter van der Westhuizen said between June and July there had been a 50% increase the number of burials which they had conducted.

He said the deaths related to people not collecting chronic medication from doctors because of coronavirus infection fears as well as from Covid-19.

“We were extremely busy in Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Gauteng is however our number one hotspot,” he said.

“Nationally we buried 6,700 people in July — with 2,500 funerals in Gauteng, 1,200 in Western Cape and Eastern Cape each, and 1,000 in KwaZulu-Natal.

We would have been in trouble if we didn’t have the cold-room facilities.
Pieter van der Westhuizen, Avbob

“In July last year we conducted 1,500 funerals in Gauteng, 800 in Western Cape, 600 in KwaZulu-Natal and 500 in the Eastern Cape.”

Van der Westhuizen said because of the increase in deaths, they had commissioned the construction of 17 refrigeration containers. “We have deployed 13, with the majority sent to Gauteng. The containers are specifically for the bodies of those who died from Covid-19.”

He said with the rise in deaths they had definitely needed the containers. “We would have been in trouble if we didn’t have the cold-room facilities.”

Jodene Smith, Doves funeral parlour MD, said they had seen a “big jump” in the funerals they had done in June and July, with their funeral numbers doubling, while “compared to July last year, we have had 30% increase in the number of funerals we have done this year.”

“Our staff are taking strain and work late into the night to keep up with the work.”

Declining to provide actual funeral numbers, she said 40% of the funerals were Covid-19 related deaths.

“The provinces where we saw the biggest increases were in Gauteng, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.”

Our staff work late into the night to keep up with the work.
Jodene Smith, Doves

She said they had a number of contingency plans in place to deal with the increased workload.

“Although we reach capacity, often our space is freed up quickly. Part of our plan includes quickly bringing online refrigeration systems that are currently offline, and deploying refrigeration containers. This will triple our capacity.”

Smith said they again saw spike in funerals in the first week of August.

“We expect the spike to continue into September. We believe Covid-19 will account for about 55% of the funerals we conduct,” she said.

“When it comes to the elderly who die from Covid-19, we are seeing big numbers from old age homes in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. The Gauteng Covid-19 funerals are for far younger people.”

Gauteng health department spokesperson Kwara Kekana said the province’s state mortuaries, which could take 3,374 bodies, were at 43% capacity. She said the 28 state hospital morgues had capacity for 1,816 bodies, while the 11 government morgues could take 1,558 bodies.

Kekana said under the Disaster Management Act, Covid-19 victims' bodies are not supposed to be stored for more than seven days. “Non-Covid-19 cases' bodies are stored for 30 days,” she added.

She said while their services were not constrained, they were experiencing challenges — especially with regards to creating and efficiently using space for the bodies.