A family from Rustenburg, whose daughter’s body was found by the side of a road after she appeared to have been strangled, was denied the opportunity to say a dignified farewell to her because her remains apparently decomposed in a funeral director’s refrigerator because, allegedly, it was not cooling properly.
Ella Blackbeard from Rustenburg, recounted tearfully that she had not been able to see Caroline Werner (31), her daughter, for the last time before she was buried because of her state of decomposition.
The North West’s forensic pathology services picked up Werner’s body on September 21 along the R24 road between Rustenburg and Magaliesburg and took it to the Pyramid Funeral Parlour in Tlhabane, which has been operating as a state mortuary on a contract basis since October last year.
State pathologists also use the facility for conducting post-mortem examinations. The department has been renting Pyramid’s premises in Tlhabane since October last year to refrigerate bodies and carry out post-mortem examinations.
Madoda Sambatha, MEC for health in the North West announced unexpectedly on September 30 last year that the Phokeng state mortuary at Rustenburg – which is conveniently located right next to the police station – would close the following morning and that the facility was being moved 12km away to the private facility in Tlhabane.
At the time, Sambatha argued in a statement, the mortuary should be temporarily closed for maintenance and that all forensic services at the mortuary would be conducted in Brits. However, the department decided to rent Pyramid’s facilities for this instead.
Twelve months later, the Phokeng state mortuary is still closed and the department cannot provide answers as to when it will reopen.
Blackbeard blames the department and Pyramid for allowing her daughter’s remains to decompose. However, Pyramid blames the forensic pathology services that found the body on the side of the road, which started decomposing immediately after she died.
Blackbeard says the undertaker who picked up her daughter’s remains at Pyramid didn’t want her to see her because of her state of decomposition.
“To this day my husband refuses to show me the photo because she looks hideous – even with the make-up on.”
She says the funeral director had to wrap her daughter’s remains in a body bag to cover up the smell when she was buried on September 30.
“We ended up having to bury her in an extra large coffin because her remains were extremely swollen due to severe decomposition,” she said.
The undertaker told City Press’s sister publication Rapport on condition of anonymity that they had collected Werner’s remains from Pyramid a few days after the completion of the autopsy.
“Her body was already badly decomposed, and the family could not view it after we went to collect it,” said the undertaker.
A source at the North West department of health told the publication that officials have been complaining for months that corpses regularly decompose at Pyramid because their refrigerators are not able to keep all their corpses cold.
“An average of 50 autopsies are done per week at Pyramid. There is not enough space in the fridges to store all the corpses and they are often piled on top of one other. There is also far too little space to carry out autopsies. The problem is aggravated by load shedding and their generator is not strong enough to cool the fridges properly. It often happens that the bodies have started to decompose by the time autopsies are done,” said the source.
According to the source, officials regularly complain about the health risks this entails. However, their complaints are ignored.
He says it is incomprehensible that the Phokeng state mortuary’s doors are still closed after a year.
“All the department should do is sink a borehole on the morgue’s premises, install a generator and repair the fridges. There’s no reason why it can’t be done in a few months,” he said.
Gentle Maxopani, manager of Pyramid’s branch in Tlhabane, denied that their fridges were a problem.
He said that they cannot be held responsible for corpses that have already decomposed when they arrive at their premises.
A corpse begins to decompose immediately after death.
Maxopani said they cannot accept responsibility for post-mortem examinations on their premises.
“We made the necessary space available to the department as they required. What they do with it is their own business.”
Tebogo Lekgethwane, spokesperson for the provincial department of health, could not provide answers about when the Phokeng state mortuary would reopen.
He told the publication he would find out if there had been any invitations for tenders to restore the state mortuary, but had not replied by the time of going to press.