Covid-19: Not necessary to wrap coffins in plastic, says health department

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The health department says covering coffins with plastic is not part of Covid-19 regulations. (OJ Koloti, Gallo Images)
The health department says covering coffins with plastic is not part of Covid-19 regulations. (OJ Koloti, Gallo Images)
  • Revised guidelines from the WHO indicate the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from human remains to living people has not been proven.
  • Many funeral parlours have been covering the coffins of people who have died from Covid-19 in plastic sheets in an attempt to stop the further spread of the virus.
  • Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane recently said people were digging up the bodies of their loved ones complaining that the plastic was suffocating them.

It is not necessary to wrap coffins in plastic or for undertakers to wear full protective gear at funerals or even sanitise graves, the national health department said in a statement on Wednesday.

The announcement came two weeks after Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane told the media during his weekly Covid-19 briefing that his government had received reports about families who had illegally dug up the bodies of their loved ones to remove the plastic wraps.

Mabuyane said it is understood that the family members believed the plastic suffocated their dead loved ones.

He said some residents of the province who believed their dead relatives communicate with them in their dreams complained that the sheets blocked that link.

READ HERE | One of SA's largest funeral homes sees 300% increase in funerals in the Eastern Cape in December

Coffins are wrapped to prevent Covid-19 from being transmitted from corpses to people handling the body.

On Wednesday night, the health department announced there was no scientific evidence backing up this theory.

"The Department of Health has issued health directions on the management of humans remains that died of Covid-19 that prescribes measures to be implemented (sic). These directions do not prescribe the covering of coffins with plastics, use of biohazard stickers nor wearing full PPE [personal protective equipment] by funeral directors or sanitising of the graves or clothes of people attending the funeral as this is unnecessary," department spokesperson Popo Maja said.

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The announcement came after a meeting on Tuesday with parties involved in the management of human remains.

These included federations of funeral undertakers and funeral parlours, individual undertakers and funeral parlours, provincial managers of environmental health, coordinators from Forensic Pathology Services and municipal health service managers.

"The revised guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that transmission of [SARS-CoV-2] from human remain[s] to people who are alive has not been proven. Therefore, the department is in the process of 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," Maja explained.

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Maja also said coffins may be wrapped in plastic only if that was prescribed as an additional measure by the relevant municipality if the grave was excavated in an area with a high-water table.

He said such additional measures were applicable to all burials (not only Covid-19), if the water table is too high for normal burial.

"The public and the industry must note that the measures prescribed are evidence based and may change as and when new evidence is presented."

Maja also warned that the illegal exhumation of human remains is prohibited and punishable by law.

ALSO READ | Covid-19 deaths: Funeral home running out of coffins converts shipping containers into mortuaries

Exhumation is regulated under legislation governing the management of human remains promulgated on 22 May 2013.

The law states exhumation or reburial will not be done unless authorised by the relevant government and permitted by the relevant municipality or a court order is issued by a magistrate of the court and shall be permitted by the relevant local government in whose jurisdiction the exhumation and reburial will take place.


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