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Cemeteries Association urges municipalities to plan for mass burials

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.

The South African Cemeteries Association (Saca) has urged municipalities to plan ahead and be prepared for an increase in the death rate, against the context of the Covid-19 rate of infection internationally.

Saca is a non-profit organisation registered with the department of Social Development and is administrated and managed by municipal officials.

“Municipalities need to 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.

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.

A member of the Cape Town mayoral committee for community services and education, Zahid Badroodien, said several emergency steps had been discussed, including mass graves. According to Badroodien, there is an ongoing process to allocate funds to cemeteries that could be extended, specifically for Covid-19 burials. In addition, if the death toll should surge, the city will enforce weekday funeral time slots to accommodate demand.

eThekwini Municipal Spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela said the city had chosen a versatile strategy, including recycling graves in 66 cemeteries, while looking to expand their existing boundaries.

In Johannesburg, Margaret Arnolds, a member of the mayoral committee, said the cemeteries and crematoria were ready for the looming threat of an increase in demand for mass burials. Arnolds says the city’s three crematoria are capable of handling 41 people maximum a day, should the demand rise.

“A large section of our population in excess of five million live in informal settlements and an even greater number (in excess of 13 million) stay in townships. High density living as a result of this and other circumstances that force people together, is unfortunately ideal for the spread of the pandemic. It is also evident that with high infection levels there will be an expected level of fatalities,” Saca stated on its website, adding that ideally, remains should be cremated as is advised by the health authorities locally and internationally.  It is a 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.

Other recommendations are:

  • Bodies should be buried in clearly marked, individual graves, although multiple trench communal graves may be unavoidable in mass disasters.
  • These graves should have a numeric or other recognisable grave marking system so that associated details of the deceased can be recorded against the relevant number.
  • Graves should ideally be assessible from at least two sides to allow access at a later stage by families, or for exhumation if the threat of infection is later eliminated and families request this.
  • In mass trench graves bodies should be spaced at least 0,5m apart with clearly set permanent beacons identifying the ends of the trench grave site in order to identify burials of individual through measurement.
  • If bodies are to be buried above each other in trenches, then soil must be backfilled to achieve 0,3m between bodies. The record must also indicate the position of the body in the grave in terms of bottom to top.
  • Burials should be conducted during the day in clear weather to prevent complications with collapses and falls and to ensure good visibility for recording.
  • While cremation is the preferred method for the treatment of covid19 infected bodies there are few crematoria available. Consideration should be given to using incinerators and also procuring portable cremators or incinerators. The challenges for procurement could take over six to eight weeks.
  • Strict personal hygiene should be observed by all handling bodies and appropriate personal protective equipment including gloves, water resistant gown / plastic apron over water repellent gown, and surgical mask be used. Use goggles or face shield to protect eyes, if there may be splashes.
  • Coffins brought into the crematorium should be sprayed and the path into the crematorium cleared and regularly sprayed.
  • Ashes once cooled may be packaged for the family and handed to the undertaker. Packages should be wiped down with bleach solution and handed over whilst ensuring good hand sanitation.
  • After use, the disposable items such as gloves and protective clothing should be disposed of in a plastic bag.

The above guidelines have considered recommendations from various accredited international and national organisations. Saca also recommend that cemetery and crematoria services be listed as essential services.

“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, Chairperson of the association said.

He recommended that public ablution facilities be sanitised after every use and that cemeteries must be manned for burials only with the minimum staff required for excavation and backfilling as determined by the number of burials for the day.