MASS graves were dug at the Durbanville Memorial Park ahead of lockdown in the event of increased deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
MASS graves were dug at the Durbanville Memorial Park ahead of lockdown in the event of increased deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Western Cape may need to dig mass graves for Covid-19 deaths

By Tshego Lepule Time of article published Jun 20, 2020

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CAPE TOWN - Mass graves have been mooted as a solution to the projected 9 000-plus deaths from Covid-19 in the province.

The Western Cape has the highest recorded deaths from the coronavirus in the country - 1 309 - as of yesterday. Just this week, 259 died from the virus.

The provincial Cabinet has approved guidelines to manage Covid-19 deaths in the region to govern how funeral parlours and municipalities handle a high number of fatalities in a worst-case scenario.

The Klipfontein sub-district in the Cape Town metro so far has the most deaths with 218, followed by Khayelitsha (190) and Tygerberg (141) as of Thursday.

Sheetal Silal, head of Modelling and Simulation Hub, Africa, in a recent presentation said projections for Covid-19 deaths in the province were from 4 500 to 9 300.

The Western Cape Department of Local Government’s guidelines state that in the event of an exponential death rate:

- Human remains will only be kept at mortuaries for two days before burials;

- The government may intervene in the case where bodies are not claimed;

- The government may also take over burials if deaths exceed 10 or 20 per day, per town;

- In the event of mass graves, municipalities are to ensure that necessary controls are in place to ensure that the remains can be identified.

Additional cremation facilities to ease the demand on the municipal crematorium in Maitland has also been discussed.

“In addition, based on the modelling of the Department of Health’s peak, we went to do an assessment of all municipalities and undertakers in relation to mass fatalities. Based on that analysis we are satisfied that the municipalities and undertakers will be able to adequately deal with mass fatalities when they arise,” said the department’s Graham Paulse.

MEC for Environmental Affairs and Development Planning Anton Bredell has approved the possible reopening of two decommissioned crematoriums, Paulse added.

The City of Cape Town has 40 cemeteries but only 17 are operational, and of which, Atlantis, Welmoed, Klip Road, Maitland and Wallacedene have the largest reserves in burial blocks.

The City’s cemeteries and crematoriums can accommodate as many as 1 200 burials and 360 cremations per month.

Based on recent projections, the City expects those estimates to exceed 5 000 per month due to the pandemic.

“We remain able to offer services as requested, but we may have to reconsider going forward if the fatalities increase exponentially.

“The City is taking necessary steps to prepare for the possibility of mass burials, which will only be conducted as a very last resort, with the dignity of the deceased being preserved as much as possible,” said Mayco member for Health, Zahid Badroodien.

In the Drakenstein Municipality, an identified Covid-19 hotspot in the province, only eight of its 13 cemeteries are operational and five others are already at capacity.

“The municipality had been exploring different options in this regard prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 and is planning to establish a new cemetery in the new 2020/21 financial year,” said spokesperson Riana Geldenhuys.

The Muslim Judicial Council’s Shaykh Riad Fataar said burial space would be a challenge should Covid-19 deaths increase sharply as some private and municipal graveyards, where it had allocated sites, were either full or near capacity.

“The four private cemeteries are a concern, particularly Vygieskraal, which has reached capacity. However, what does assist is that in Islam you are allowed to bury family members in one grave,” he said.

“With the municipality’s cemeteries where we have separate allotments there are challenges there, too; Khayelitsha has reached capacity, Klip Road will follow soon, and Delft and Eerste River are smaller yards so capacity is always an issue.

“Winter, other than the end of the year, is when we have more burials and with Covid-19 this will put on more pressure. But we have regular engagements with the City on a weekly basis.”


* For the latest on the Covid-19 outbreak, visit IOL's  special #Coronavirus page.

** If you think you have been exposed to the Covid-19 virus, please call the 24-hour hotline on 0800 029 999 or visit 

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