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KwaZulu-Natal - About 400 bodies are lying unclaimed in state mortuaries across KwaZulu-Natal – some for more than eight months.

The situation could lead to space shortages and could affect the preservation of all bodies in state mortuaries.

Health authorities have blamed the problem on the lengthy process of identification, the lack of burial ground in some municipalities and administrative bottlenecks.

Of the 400 bodies at 41 mortuaries in KZN, 125 are at the Fort Napier mortuary in Pietermaritzburg where some are said to be badly decomposed, according to IFP MPL Usha Roopnarain.

Roopnarain was among members of the KZN legislature’s portfolio committee on health who visited the mortuary last week, and has since called on MEC for Health, Sibongiseni Dhlomo, to intervene urgently. She said some of the bodies at the newly built Fort Napier mortuary have been unclaimed since December.

Private pathologist and former head of forensic pathology in KZN, Dr Steve Naidoo, said larger mortuaries in the province were able to accommodate unclaimed bodies.

Smaller facilities, however, faced huge problems.

He said the bodies often had to be piled one on top of the other on trolleys or on the floor.

“This makes it difficult to access these bodies or move them around. The smaller mortuaries do not have enough tray and tracking space to accommodate individual bodies.”

He said too many bodies also affected the cooling capacity of fridges.

“The temperature drops and this results in bodies not preserving well.”

Naidoo said during his tenure there had been talk of constructing a long-term storage facility for unclaimed bodies at Cato Ridge.

He said the project may have been shelved in favour of the Fort Napier mortuary.

The Department of Health has attributed the backlog partly to administrative processes causing delays in burying the bodies, while also saying that there were humane considerations before burying bodies as paupers.

Dr Mandla Mazizi, the general manager of forensic medical services in the province, said the identities of unclaimed bodies had to be established within 30 days, after which they could be buried as paupers.

But Mazizi said certain complexities rendered the 30-day period insufficient, and in some cases bodies needed be kept for longer.

“We have to know the name of the person and then we have to get relatives coming forward and claiming that body. We might know the name [for example when a person died with an identity book in his pocket], but without any relative coming forward, such a body remains classified as unidentified.”

Mazizi said that the process of identifying the bodies was time consuming as it involved the SAPS, Home Affairs and the Department of Health, which manages mortuaries, as well as three tiers of government.

“But, there are also humane considerations,” he said. “We cannot say that just because we have not identified a body after 30 days, we bury it as a pauper. We have to consider the high illiteracy rate in our environment etc. It is on that basis that we do not mind keeping the bodies a little longer.”

Mazizi said the bodies would be kept at the mortuary for as long as was necessary, but also depending on whether there was space.

“So yes, in some mortuaries some bodies have been there for more than six months.”

He said the stage of decomposition of a body was crucial in determining how long it was kept at state mortuaries.

Badly decomposed bodies were buried immediately after the mandatory 30-day period had lapsed, he said.

However, administrative and logistical bottlenecks at municipalities remained the major cause preventing the timely burial of bodies by the Health Department, Mazizi said.

This was because municipalities had either not appointed contractors to carry out the work for them, or were short of burial ground.

He said that in a recent meeting with the Ilembe District Municipality, a concern was raised that the municipality did not have enough burial ground, while the Msunduzi Municipality was said to be experiencing problems with the contractors.

Cremation was an alternative, but remained a highly contested solution to the problem, mainly due to cultural considerations.

“My belief is that if we cannot keep you long enough in our fridges, at least we need to keep the body underground so that, should the families come forward at a later stage, they would be able to at least claim and exhume the bones of their loved one,” Mazizi said.

“Also in some cases new evidence comes to light and such bones may need to be exhumed as part of evidence.”

Mazizi dismissed claims that the stench at the Fort Napier mortuary was as a result of the bodies decomposing.

He said that it had resulted from work at the mortuary on the day of the visit by the members of the legislature. The work had included unblocking drains from the post-mortem room, he said. – Daily News with additional reporting by Yogas Nair.