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By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist

Undertakers say they’re ready for possible virus mass burials

However, the availability of burial land could pose a challenge, said SA Cemeteries Association (Saca) chair Pepe Dass.

From a blue-chip concern to a small family-owned business, funeral undertakers in South Africa are gearing up to deal with the worst – a spike in the country’s Covid-19 death toll – which, according to experts, is likely to massively increase during the winter.

As the national death count on Thursday stood at 1,674, Avbob, one of the largest funeral undertakers, was bullish about its readiness in an event of mass burials.

Asked about the cost for bereaved families, general manager Pieter van der Westhuizen said: “Besides the adjustments made to cover inflation, we are not increasing our prices.

“Since the lockdown started, we conducted 10,000 funerals. But not all are Covid-19 related.”

The company’s Bloemfontein-based factory manufactured seven additional cold rooms from used shipping containers “to increase our capacity” – but Van der Westhuizen said a possible spike in coronavirus-related deaths would last “for a short period”.

“It remains to be seen whether we will see a significant increase because of Covid-19, or whether it will just be a reclassification, as most of the deceased so far had more than one comorbidity.

“We manufacture our own coffins and increased capacity by 20% to be able to deal with any peak in deaths,” said Van der Westhuizen.

Operating in the heart of the Western Cape – a Covid-19 hotspot with over 44,000 cases and at least 1,243 deaths – Paul Doorly-Jones of Tygerberg Funeral Directors said undertakers in the province were “ready and leaving no stone unturned”.

“Our readiness is comparable to a fire department, expecting to be called on a 24-hour basis.

“We have been prepared right from the outbreak of the virus – from face masks to theatre booties for staff, with our main service being 99% cremations.

“All Covid-19 clients are charged about R1,000 extra for the additional precautionary measures we have to take.”

Due to coffin producers having hiked prices, Doorly-Jones said it was inevitable that prices would go up.

“For a basic dignified coffin made at our premises, we charge between R3,950 to R4,500.

“For a top-of-the-range casket, you can expect to pay anything from R18,000 to R35,000,” said Doorly-Jones.

“I serve upper to middle income customers. If you have R5,000, I will send you to my opposition who does that kind of service at that price.”

Despite the Western Cape topping the list of provinces with the highest Covid-19 cases and deaths, Doorly-Jones said he was concerned that there were “some people who are still casual about taking precautions in some areas”.

“You still have some people not wearing masks, who will perhaps get a wake-up call should a friend or relative die,” he said.

Body keeps funeral practises in check

Adhering to protocols was crucial in burying people who died from Covid-19 to avoid any further spread of the virus, SA Cemeteries Association (Saca) chair Pepe Dass warned.

Saca ensured that all burial practices – across cultural and religious lines – complied with legislation and were “conducted in a manner to protect the environment and the dignity of South Africans”, Dass said.

“From the transportation and handling of the coffin to the corpse, the protocols are the same for all burials of infected people. Coffins must be handled by personnel using the appropriate personal protective equipment.

“No one is allowed to open the coffin or bags.

“Saca has also recommended a reduced number of mourners at cemeteries to include just the immediate family,” said Dass.

In terms of National State of Disaster regulations, burials should take place three days after a death.

While Dass said metros reported being prepared for Covid-19 funerals, land availability was key.

“Saca is aware that municipalities have in the past faced a challenge in providing burial land.

“In anticipation of a possible increase in demand, the association recommended to municipalities to identify additional burial sites.

“It recommended that municipalities review the space within existing cemeteries,” said Dass. “Look at occupying land adjacent to existing cemeteries and, as a last resort, look at alternative sites.”


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