South Africa’s coronavirus rules call for fast burials, or preferably cremation, for those who die of Covid-19. But funeral parlours say it can take weeks, and though they are under pressure, it’s not their fault. Isolating next of kin, trouble claiming against funeral insurance, and slow processing by home affairs are all keeping bodies in morgues – in a way the government feared could be dangerous.
There is a backlog of burials at several cemeteries, and even cremations can take weeks to arrange, the National Funeral Directors’ Association of Southern Africa says, as bureaucracy and logistics falter from the big load and unique difficulties that come with Covid-19 deaths. A big spike in deaths in SA’s second wave has put strain on the funeral industry, but industry players say they would be able to cope, if the government could provide the paperwork.
Under rules in place since mid-2020, mortuaries may only keep the bodies of those who die from Covid-19 for three days. Such was the government’s fear of infection due to overcrowded mortuaries that it threatened to “intervene” if remains were left uncollected.
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. Rules for the living also make things more difficult. Not all undertakers are approved to register deaths on behalf of a family, says Lawrence Konyana, deputy president of the association.
“Most of them require that you bring a relative with or a next of kin and you find that that the next of kin is someone who was living with the deceased, who’s supposed to be quarantining. Because deaths cannot be registered, claims cannot be lodged against funeral policies, which causes further delays, especially at a time when families have money trouble. They are really taking a strain and it’s one of the reasons that people are not burying fast enough as well,” said Konyana.
Combined with high volumes, some cremations are now being delayed for as long as three weeks.
Mike Collinge, owner of Johannesburg-based Collinge and Co. Funeral Directors, said the funeral home has had about 80% more burials this month than it would expect in a normal January. While they were not experiencing major delays, the parlour has had to cancel leave to deal with the influx of deaths. Since the first wave of Covid-19 deaths his parlour had installed extra cold storage, he says.
The department of home affairs this week extended its operating hours to accommodate for death and birth registrations, while suspending most other services.
“We are doing so to enable funeral parlours and families to bury their loved ones within the requisite period for Covid-19 deaths,” the department said.