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Bulk graves at cemetery

Graves were dug at the Durbanville Memorial Park in bulk before lockdown as a precaution.

Photographs of “mass graves” being dug at the private cemetery were shared on social media as being graves for all the deaths due to Covid-19.

However, not a single person who has passed away due to Covid-19, has been buried at the Durbanville Memorial Park yet, said Waldi Joubert, group financial director of Calgro M3 in Johannesburg, which owns five private cemeteries in the country – three in Gauteng, one in Bloemfontein and the one outside Durbanville.

There was only one burial at one of their cemeteries in Gauteng of someone who died of Covid-19, he says.

“It is regular operational strategy to dig graves upfront – normally about 20 graves, because we use mechanical equipment for this, and it just makes financial sense to dig a couple of graves at the same time. None of the graves were for anyone specific,” he said.

Joubert said just before lockdown graves were dug at the Durbanville Memorial Park in bulk – a total of 45 graves. This was more than double what they normally would have done, because they were not sure when they will have the equipment available again and not because of all the expected deaths.

He said Calgro M3 has not yet been approached by the state to dig a mass grave, but the South African Cemeteries Association (Saca) shared guidelines on mass graves and to be prepared for an increase in the death rate due to the Covid-19 pandemic in context of the international rate of infection and the pressure on burial space.

“Durbanville Memorial Park has refined its operational processes to ensure that it can accommodate any surge in demand for burials if the need arises, while ensuring that it adheres to the strict health regulations around Covid-19 to protect employees and the public,” Joubert said.

In an article on its website, Saca, a non-profit organisation (NPO) registered with the department of social development, urges municipalities to be prepared and identify available graves in advance.

“If it is logistically impossible to bury huge numbers in single graves, then communal or mass graves must be prepared,” the association warned on its web page.

“Even though the current rate of Covid-19 infections in South Africa doesn’t follow international trends, city officials in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are already preparing for the worst. These three cities are the most adversely affected by Covid-19, with a high rate of infections and several deaths recorded.

Saca further stated on its website that ideally, remains should be cremated as is advised by the health authorities locally and internationally. It is stated that this may pose a challenge as South Africa has very few crematorium facilities.

The organisation posted several recommendations to municipalities, including that consideration must be given to the suitability of land with regard to distances from communities and residential areas, high water tables and water sources.

While cremation is the preferred method for the treatment of Covid-19 infected bodies, there are few crematoria available. Consideration should be given to using incinerators and also procuring portable cremators or incinerators.

“The capacity of mortuary services to hold bodies which may unknowingly be infected, may pose a risk to personnel and public in the environment. People may also die of seemingly natural causes while unknowingly being infected,” Pepe Dass, chair of the association, said in the article.