Funeral parlours across South Africa are running out of coffins as corpses pile up in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
In interviews with undertakers across several provinces, the scale of the crisis becomes frighteningly obvious.
Officially, there have been 40,000 Covid deaths, but some estimates put it at more than 100,000.
It’s not just coffins:
- Undertakers are running out of cold storage space to keep bodies before burial
- Undertakers are looking for new grave sites as the existing ones fill up
- Funeral policy costs are rising
“Call me in three weeks time and I will tell you that we have run out of coffins,” says the owner of MNH Funerals in Limpopo, Kgaugelo Mapoulo.
“Before Covid-19 I was burying a maximum of five or six people a week. I am now burying between 30 and 50 people weekly,” he says.
He said bigger businesses are burying up to 200 people weekly, and they are also running out of fridge space to store bodies.
Ntamo Monnapule, secretary of the Free State Funeral Directors Association, says there’s a sharp rise in demand for coffins especially in Mangaung.
“Graves are full. Coffins are in short supply and people are dying every day,” he says.
“We are meeting the Mangaung Municipality to try and get a new gravesite as the old one is full.”
He says undertakers from the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape have been coming to the Free State to buy coffins.
“We have warned our members to stock more coffins. We might not have coffins within the next few weeks,” says Monnapule.
Loyiso Singata of Usingata Funerals from Alexandria near Port Alfred says they have buried more than 4,000 people since the area registered its first Covid-19 death last year.
“Our members have been burying between 15 to 20 people a week,” says Singata.
Singata says from June to August he buried more than 60 people.
“There were weeks where I buried people every day of the week,” he says.
“I was in and out of Port Alfred Hospital like a madman collecting four bodies a day. Sometimes I found bodies in the passage because the hospital had run out of storage. As an association most of our members ran out of coffins.”
National Funeral Practitioners of SA (Nafupa) secretary-general Julie Mbuthuma says their biggest challenges are sourcing coffins, getting graves in the cities, and a shortage of PPEs.
She says smaller parlours on the South Coast are burying between five to eight people a week and bigger parlours about 20-30 per week.
“This is more than eight times our normal workload,” she says.
Their day now starts as early as 3am and ends as late as 11pm.
“We no longer have time with our families or even time to rest. We are under constant fear of bringing the virus back to our families.”
Cost of burials escalates as money dwindles
Sanitisers, masks, overalls and boots are some of the costs funeral parlours have to add to the bill their struggling customers have to pay – but many poor families have stopped paying for their funeral policies because they don’t have jobs and there is no money.
Thabo Modise from Mangaung in Free State who used to work as a general worker says his policies were up-to-date for 10 years but in September his boss told him they were cutting his salary and he will only work when they need him.
Thabo who is now unemployed says he has to choose between feeding his family or his funeral policies.
“I chose to feed my family. I had no other choice,” says Thabo.
“Today, not all of us are covered and no one is working.”
Ntamo Monnapule, of Ntamo Funeral Services, says he had 500 active policyholders before March last year.
“I now have fewer than 300.
“Some customers tell me they will not be paying while others just vanish.”
Monnapule says funeral parlours have been forced to increase policy costs.
“We lost many colleagues as we used to collect bodies from people’s homes and we realised it was important for us to be well-protected. We had to buy full PPEs which meant charging our client R2,000 more,” he said.
“Some pay, some don’t. Some have gone into serious debt because of this extra charge we have to impose to make us safe.”
GroundUp reports that between 3 May 2020 and 16 January 2021, excess deaths exceeded 106,000. This is the estimate of the latest weekly Medical Research Council mortality report. These excess deaths are likely due to Covid.