Government amends Covid-19 burial laws

The Department of Health says coffins of Covid-19 victims do not have to be wrapped after all. Department spokesperson, Popo Maja said the new policy emerged from recent discussions with interested and affected parties in the management of human remains, among them funeral undertaker associations, pathologists, health and environmental services.

Maja said measures did not prescribe the covering of coffins with plastics, the use of biohazard stickers nor the wearing of full personal protective equipment by funeral directors or the sanitising of the graves or clothes of people attending the funeral, as this was not necessary.

“This is unless it is prescribed as an additional measure by the relevant municipality, where the grave is excavated in an area with a high-water table. Such additional measures are applicable to all burials and not only Covid-19, if the water table is too high for normal burial,” he said.

Maja also emphasised that the public and the industry should note that the measures prescribed are evidence based and may change as and when new evidence is presented.

“The revised guidance from the World Health Organization indicates that transmission of Sars 2 from a human remains to people who are alive has not been proven, therefore the department is reviewing the requirement of a body bag for burial to align to current evidence. Human remains can be buried either in a body bag or be wrapped in a shroud or blanket, as the case may be. The body bag can be used for medical reasons or the family may decide to bury using these body bags,” he said.

“The department has regulated the number of people that can attend funeral gatherings to reduce the possible exposure to the disease. The process of handling human remains affected with Covid-19 poses a risk to the members of the public who are doing it and to their immediate families and the community at large.”

According to Maja, current regulations require that the human remains should only be conveyed to the dead person’s home on the day of the burial, and viewing is only allowed under a controlled environment within a mortuary or funeral undertakers’ premises. He said these measures are still necessary to control the spread of Covid-19 among mourners.

Associate Professor in Hydrogeology and Engineering Geology at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, Matthys Dippenaar, said as the Covid-19 pandemic continued, increased fatalities might exceed current burial and crematoria facilities.

He said this became evident when undertakers reported a 200% increase in the number of bodies they have to bury on a weekly basis, and storage being a problem, as they do not have capacity and most have been forced to outsource storage space.

“Apart from ensuring there are enough facilities, an equally important consideration is to ensure that death and burial occur safely given the highly infectious nature of the Sars-CoV-2 virus. Because little is known about Sars-CoV-2, clarity is being sought around the risk to environmental and human health, due to the impending mass burial of Covid-19 victims. If municipalities continue to site and monitor cemeteries correctly, we are okay,” said Dippenaar.

He also said that monitoring the cemeteries and groundwater was important.

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