A forensic expert works in a morgue. Provincial mortuaries are buckling under a high load of unidentified bodies. File photo: Damir Sagolj/REUTERS.

Cape Town - As provincial mortuaries buckle under a high load of unidentified bodies, questions have been raised over burial rites and the dignity in which the bodies are disposed.

Unidentified bodies in the province was said to be between 420 and 450, according to the department of health “at any given time”.

Provincial health spokesperson Mark van der Heever said between April and June, Tygerberg Forensic Pathology Laboratory had approximately 200 unidentified bodies. 

The increasing number of deaths forced the department to make alternative arrangements and store the unclaimed bodies in shipping containers.

But the issue has also raised questions of how many of those bodies were children and whether those children were stateless.

Lawyer Joy van der Heyde, who focuses on family law, said it was also important to know how many families in the province did not know what happened to their loved ones because under-resourced facilities lead to people not being identified and, therefore, their bodies unclaimed.

She said it was crucial to know how many were given a pauper’s burial by the state in “some nameless” burial site.

“How do we know religious rites were observed during this process? It raises many questions relating to the rights to dignity, culture and religion and to freedom and security of the person.”

She said in the case of stateless childrens’ deaths the likelihood of being identified was slim.

“Many of them may not have had their births registered with Home Affairs as the duty of registering the child’s birth with the biometrics would have been left to the immigrant parent, who was most likely illegally in the country,” she added.

According to Van der Heever, regulations governing the forensic pathology services stipulated that a pauper burial proceeds 30 days after a body had been received and no identification could be done after all steps had been taken to establish identification.

“Remains are kept for long periods until all possible steps have been taken to try and establish identity or at least some identifiable features are established, to put on a database.”

During 2018/19, 250 people were given a pauper’s burial at a gravesite where there was available space. Pauper’s graves generally contain more than one body.

Weekend Argus