WATCH | ‘I have extreme anxiety’- Frontline burial workers prep for ‘inevitable’ Covid-19 third wave

09 February 2021 - 15:00
By Emile Bosch

Tears well up in Aboo Sayed’s eyes and his voice cracks as he recounts the story of two siblings holding one another, sobbing, at the previous day’s burial service carried out by the Saaberie Chishty Burial Society. 

No other family member was present as they were all infected with coronavirus. 

“These two siblings held each other and cried out, which broke our hearts. That’s when we realised we need to be strong for them, to try and support and make it easier for them,” Sayed recounts.

Soft afternoon light plays across the weary face of Saaberie chairperson Sayed while he sits in the largely undisturbed masjid ( prayer room) at the Lenasia cemetery, south of Johannesburg. 

The room, typically used for prayer and viewing of the deceased, is desolate and cordoned off with red tape in adherence to Covid-19 regulations. 

With Covid-19 deaths in the country averaging close to 500 a day in early January, the burial society dealt with a large influx of bodies. 

“There were times we would perhaps do 50 funerals in a month. It has gone up to 70 in some months and even 90. It just depends on the month. With the second wave of infections we can definitely see an increase in numbers,” Sayed says. 

Mourners gather at the gravesite of a male member of their mosque who succumbed to Covid-19. Burial societies often struggle to contain mourners, overcome with grief, from taking over.
Image: Emile Bosch Mourners gather at the gravesite of a male member of their mosque who succumbed to Covid-19. Burial societies often struggle to contain mourners, overcome with grief, from taking over.

The society has carried out more than 250 funerals related to Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic early last year. 

Founded in 1982, the society provides Islamic funerals around Lenasia, Eldorado Park, Ennerdale,  Soweto and Poortjie, and according to their website, “all informal settlements around Lenasia and wherever called upon”.

During the pandemic the society has aimed to maintain as many Islamic traditions as possible while adhering to Covid-19 regulations. 

The society is an NPO and relies heavily on the work of volunteers.

Well loved in the community, the society often receives help from community members. 

Saaberie Chishty Burial Society volunteers wash the body of a person who succumbed to Covid-19 complications.
Image: Emile Bosch Saaberie Chishty Burial Society volunteers wash the body of a person who succumbed to Covid-19 complications.

Volunteer Mohommed Kaka said during the process of cleansing the body, the deceased is treated with the absolute respect. 

“We award them with the utmost dignity as we can imagine ourselves lying on the table,” Kaka says. 

Prior to burial proceedings, the body of the deceased must be thoroughly cleansed by a group of at least five volunteers clad in personal protective equipment before being wrapped in a white shroud or kafan. The deceased is then sprinkled with sandalwood and perfume. 

The body of the deceased must be thoroughly cleansed by a group of at least five volunteers clad in personal protective equipment before being wrapped in a white shroud.
Image: Emile Bosch The body of the deceased must be thoroughly cleansed by a group of at least five volunteers clad in personal protective equipment before being wrapped in a white shroud.

The body is wrapped in a plastic sheet as per Covid-19 regulations before being taken to the gravesite. 

No more than 50 people are permitted to attend funerals during the lockdown. The burial society often struggle to contain mourners, overcome with grief, from taking over.

Speaking to Times Liveduring the country's second wave of infections, Sayed paints a grim picture of the agony and grief families of Covid-19 victims have endured. 

“Those numbers are now becoming names and those names are people we know,” Sayed said. 

A drone image of the Muslim burial section at the Lenasia cemetery. The graves on the right are believed to be related to the coronavirus.
Image: Emile Bosch A drone image of the Muslim burial section at the Lenasia cemetery. The graves on the right are believed to be related to the coronavirus.

The pandemic is extremely close to Sayed’s heart as both his father and uncle succumbed to coronavirus within 24 hours of one another during the first wave. 

Sayed replaced his late father, Abbas, as chairperson of the society. 

Following the traditional burial process offered by the society, Sayed’s father and uncle were buried at the Lenasia cemetery.

Standing next to his father's grave , Sayed recited a prayer and said: “I put all these processes in place only to realise God put them in place to comfort me and my family."

Despite infection numbers dropping, Sayed and his team said they are preparing for an inevitable third wave of the coronavirus. 

Mourners at the Lenasia cemetery visit the grave of a person who succumbed to  Covid-19.
Image: Emile Bosch Mourners at the Lenasia cemetery visit the grave of a person who succumbed to Covid-19.

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