The body snatchers who prey on paupers

By Time of article published Sep 10, 2005

Share this article:

By Mbulelo Baloyi, Zukile Majova and Tash Reddy

The discovery of 40 decomposed bodies at an Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal mortuary this week has revealed what has been described as the tip of the iceberg of "wheeling and dealing" in dead bodies said to be rife in the industry.

A prominent government appointee has said that if a proper investigation were instituted, hundreds more bodies would be found.

Several people in the funeral business who spoke to The Independent on Saturday agreed that competition was fierce among undertakers, with each vying for a lucrative slice of pauper burials which are paid for by the state.

None wished to be identified because of fear of reprisals in this cut-throat industry.

They explained how bodies were "recycled" for pauper burials at R200 a time.

"Some funeral undertakers have contracts with hospitals to bury dead patients who have not been positively identified," he said.

"We have heard of cases where such bodies have not been buried because of a shortage of burial space.

"The practice of recycling pauper bodies continues unchecked because of the laxity of follow-ups from the authorities and so the same corpse is used time and again and the state is unknowingly milked of money."

Ahmed Taruk, executive manager at the Home Affairs Undertakers Forensic Medicine and Police Department, an organisation formed to address the problems, said police had a hand in corrupting the industry.

"When a call comes into a police station, the officer who answers calls his contact in the funeral business. The contact will give him a cut from the undertakers' fee. You find that certain undertakers are always the ones who are called even if they are not closest to the scene.

"In fact, the whole industry is so bad that there are now agents of funeral parlours touting outside government mortuaries. They are harassing relatives who have just identified their loved ones."

He said hundreds of bodies in funeral parlours around Durban had yet to be claimed.

"More often than not the body reaches the cold room but no one claims it. The mortuary then holds on to the body hoping to make a fortune when the relatives show up.

"In the process, they are breaking the law because they are supposed to transfer the corpse to a state mortuary after seven days. I don't know what they end up doing with these bodies but I know they cannot afford to bury them as paupers because it is too expensive.

"I am sure if proper investigations are conducted, hundreds of rotting bodies will be found," Taruk said.

- Families hoping to find missing loved ones among the 40 bodies found at the Umlazi mortuary this week are in for a long wait.

Forensic pathologist Dr Reggie Perumal said the chances of getting DNA results to substantiate identity would take months if the procedure were carried out by the state.

"Privately, it would take less than a week a body but DNA tests done by the state could take months because of an overload of work and a lack of resources."

Since the bodies were found numerous calls have been streaming in from worried but hopeful families.

Post mortems began on Friday and police are waiting for pathology results to continue their investigation.

Share this article: