Coronavirus hits burial rites in South Africa

A coffin with a flower arrangement at a mortuary.
A coffin with a flower arrangement at a mortuary.

The coronavirus has profound implications for the way many South Africans bury their dead.

If a loved one dies of the coronavirus, relatives will not be allowed to perform many traditional practices associated with the transportation and handling of the body.

They will also not be allowed to take their loved one home for rituals to be performed on the body.

In a document covering the guidelines for public health response by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), in conjunction with the Department of Health, they say that the local environmental health practitioner must strictly monitor the handling of human remains throughout the process.

The body must be placed in a leak-proof triple body bag — both the first two bags must be transparent and sealed while the third one must be non-transparent and unsealed, with handles. The body must be labelled with a biohazard warning tag with the words "hazard Group 4 Pathogens" before it is transported to a designated health facility mortuary.

LIVE | Coronavirus: latest news on the Covid-19 virus pandemic

The remains must also be placed in a non-transparent coffin.

The NICD says the remains are considered contagious and should only be kept in designated health facilities' mortuaries.

And, they may not be kept at home. The guidelines say the body can only be transferred from one designated facility to another designated facility or to a cemetery or crematorium.

"Under no circumstances shall the human remains be directly handled, whether for aesthetic, hygiene preparations, cultural or religious reasons.

"The human remains may not be embalmed or viewed by breaking the seals of the first two bags, but by opening the third bag."

The NICD also warns that bodies should be cremated rather than buried.

"Where it is feasible and acceptable to family culture and/or religion, it is strongly recommended that the remains be cremated.

"In all cases, remains should not be kept in households for vigil or any purpose but be kept in designated health facility mortuary premises and directly transported from designated health facility mortuary straight to place of burial or cremation or the home on the day of burial/cremation.”

Finding peace

However, Zulu cultural expert Professor Jabulani Maphalala said the souls of the victims of the virus will never find peace if they are buried according to the NICD's guidelines.

"According to Zulu culture, the body of a deceased person must spend the night at home before being taken to a cemetery the following day. When you fetch the deceased person from the mortuary you must communicate to him or her and say that you are taking them home.

"If you don't say the right things that are acceptable to the ancestors, the soul of the deceased will be left behind at the mortuary from where it will start wandering. This can cause a lot of suffering to the deceased person's children later in life," he said.

Taking the body of the deceased person from the mortuary straight to the burial site is completely against the Zulu culture.

"The body has to sleep at home so that the spirit of the deceased can join that of the ancestors who passed away several years ago. There can be disastrous consequences for the family members of the deceased if this process is not followed," he said

Lockdown For
Voting Booth
Pyjamas or no pyjamas? Is sleeping in your day clothes:
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
63% - 1606 votes
Something I've seriously considered
10% - 260 votes
Normal in my household
27% - 697 votes
Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo