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Covid-19 pandemic, two years on: How SA funeral parlours dealt with the death and devastation

Nathan van Rooi who died of Covid-19 related complications is buried at Wespark cemetery. The family followed the restrictions imposed by authorities and could not carry the coffin or close the grave. Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency (ANA).

Nathan van Rooi who died of Covid-19 related complications is buried at Wespark cemetery. The family followed the restrictions imposed by authorities and could not carry the coffin or close the grave. Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency (ANA).

Published Mar 19, 2022

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Johannesburg - Niresh Poonee recalls the day that it was announced that South Africa had recorded its very first Covid-19 case.

It was two years ago.

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Just like millions of other South Africans, Niresh admits he was taken by surprise.

“Honestly, it came as a complete shock to me, as I can imagine millions of other South Africans felt that way too,” he says.

As concerns for the safety of his friends and family lingered in his mind that day, he was also overcome with worry at how his business would be affected.

As a director at a well-known funeral parlour, Poonees Funeral Parlour in Johannesburg, he knew his business would be directly impacted by the pandemic.

As news of Covid deaths from around the world began surfacing, the funeral director quickly began making plans over the next few weeks to adapt to what was to come in South Africa.

“We had to adapt very quickly. We knew very little about the virus and were given very random and sometimes over-the-top information. My first concern was for my staff and the families that we provide a service to. I knew we had to be very strict with all Covid safety protocols. So, we implemented strict rules and procedures to keep all concerned safe.”

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Thousands of South Africans succumbed to the virus, leaving funeral parlours overwhelmed. Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

But Poonee admits he didn’t expect the devastation that the virus would bring in the months to come.

Thousands of South Africans succumbed to the virus, leaving Poonee and his company with an overwhelming number of funerals to prepare for.

“I didn’t expect the pandemic to be this devastating. We were led to believe that with lockdown, the virus would eventually dissipate. However, things did not work out in that manner, and the first wave came as a complete shock to the entire world. We got all the PPE that was required, and our coffin manufacturing department also increased production of coffins so that we could meet the demand.”

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The funeral parlour also had to speedily introduce virtual funerals, as in-person attendance numbers were limited due to Covid protocols.

“With the limitations of travel and the amount people attending funerals, families were not able to grieve together. That’s when I thought of streaming funerals for families. It was a great help in avoiding crowds at funerals whilst still allowing people the opportunity to grieve.”

He says his company had to adapt very quickly to a number of changes, as deaths continued to increase at a rapid rate in the country.

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“The funeral industry is very fast-paced. People don’t realise that, so you always have to be very well prepared. The greatest change that we made was implementing safety protocols. We had to implement strict protocols for both staff and family for safety.”

“This was also very challenging, as dealing with a family that has lost a loved one is a very sensitive situation, then you add all these new rules and regulations that do not allow for them to adequately say goodbye. We just had to think fast and think ahead so that we could prepare ourselves as best as we could.”

Poonee also had to employ more people to deal with the influx of funerals.

“We did employ more people to assist as well as media and streaming staff. This was done at no extra charge to families as we wanted to try to assist them as best as we could.”

Funeral parlours had to adapt very quickly to a number of changes, as deaths continued to increase at a rapid rate in the country Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency(ANA)

He says the funeral parlour had never been as busy as it had been during the first three waves of the pandemic.

“The country reached a point where we didn't have time slots available for burials or cremations. So basically, a funeral was booked just like an appointment.

“Funerals were being held in the early hours of the morning, and some in the late evening. It was a strange and difficult time.”

He also gave insight into what it was like conducting his first Covid funeral.

“The first Covid funeral we had was stressful for all of us. While we followed all safety procedures, we were all still in fear of contracting the virus. We knew so little about the virus but being in this industry, we had to put the families first and soldier on.”

Despite dealing with funerals on a regular basis, Poonee admits it was mentally tough to deal with deaths at the height of the pandemic.

“I still get anxious thinking about it. We saw so many people, young and old, families that suffered multiple deaths within short time frames. It really was a scary and stressful time when things were at their worse.”

Running a funeral parlour during a pandemic isn’t an easy feat, he says. They faced numerous challenges.

“Our greatest challenge, I would say, was catering to the masses, whilst still maintaining a personal touch. At some point in the pandemic, things became overwhelming for all of us. We had to explain to families that whilst they were important to us, we could not always give them exactly what they wanted.”

Now two years on from when SA recorded its first Covid case, Poonee says his funeral parlour is still very busy, despite the huge decrease in deaths from the pandemic.

“I don’t think that you can compare the kind of busy that we were during the worst of the pandemic to day-to-day life. During the first, second and third wave, things were at an extreme. We’ve always been relatively busy and we’ve maintained that.

“The past two years have been tumultuous for the industry and our business, just as it has been for the rest of the world. But we have adapted while still assisting families with great care.”

Despite the huge decrease in deaths since the height of the pandemic, funeral parlours are still very busy. Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Meanwhile, Sonja Smith, who owns the Sonja Smith Elite Funeral Group in Gauteng, says she began planning for her business when the virus had not even reached South Africa as yet.

“While the majority of South Africans were still in denial, thinking that a far-away virus in a far-away continent will not sweep across our country, I started preparing for the worst based on what I saw on international television,” says Smith.

“The mere thought of refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals as temporary mortuaries gave me the shivers. I immediately contacted the Health Inspector with a view to expanding my mortuary facilities.”

“I enlarged my refrigeration facilities and appointed additional staff on a six month fixed contract basis. We also invested a large amount of money into the acquisition of PPE, which at the time was scarce and very expensive.”

The coronavirus pandemic has put immense pressure on the death-care industry, as cases across South Africa continue to rise. Picture Leon Lestrade. African News Agency/ANA.

She describes the peak of the pandemic as an “absolute nightmare.”

“In my 24 years in the funeral industry, I have never experienced such devastation. As the waves hit us one by one, the numbers became names, people that we knew. Trying to run a business when twelve members of your group, including myself, contracted Covid-19 simultaneously was an absolute nightmare.

“It was a period of uncontrolled and unmanageable growth. A lack of resources and space constraints definitely had an impact on our service delivery.”

Her company underwent a number of changes to adapt to a new way of life.

“We did our utmost to assist bereaved families, albeit online, when they were unable to visit our offices. We also sourced companies to start live-streaming of funeral services.”

Despite having had over two decades of experience in the funeral industry, Smith admits having to deal with Covid funerals for the first time was challenging and scary.

“At that stage, the regulations stipulated that the deceased had to be wrapped in three body bags. Some other undertakers even conducted burials in full PPE, with the caskets wrapped in cling wrap. It was quite scary at the time because we were worried about our staff contracting the virus in their line of duty.

“I instructed them to double mask and also put a mask on the mouth of the deceased when they collected bodies. The funeral service itself was very impersonal. Sanitising, social distancing, no touching or hugging. I even had surgical gloves on as I handed out the funeral bulletins at the service.”

Smith adds that it was difficult to cope with the amount of death and devastation.

“It was horrible. Seeing numerous people dying on a daily basis, my husband being hospitalised after we both contracted Covid, my father being critically ill in hospital at the time, customer complaints due to us not coping with the large volumes. This all became too much for me, and I almost had a mental breakdown.

“I called for help, and a psychologist came to my rescue with a technique called Brain Recursive Therapy.”

Smith said she was also faced with challenges including low staff morale, staff getting sick, and being in quarantine or isolation, lack of resources, including vehicles, coffins and PPE.

“The police had to also be notified of a funeral, and we required SAPS permits to travel across provincial borders. Medical practitioners were also too busy saving lives that they got behind with paperwork. There was a huge backlog at crematoriums, and the Department of Home Affairs offices were overwhelmed with death registrations resulting in backlogs.

“Clients visited our offices not knowing that they were Covid positive, then letting us know when they received their results.”

Now two years later, Smith admits while the business has stabilised, they still remain very busy.

“I would say that things have stabilised after the third wave. We are quite busy since we have ten branches and franchises to look after.”

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