Covid-19 burial regulations discriminatory, say families
KARABO NGOEPE and NOKWANDA NCWANE
Johannesburg - As the grip of Covid-19 continues to alter people's lives globally, burial rituals have been pushed aside, denying loved ones an opportunity for a proper send-off.
According to Government Gazette no. 589 “washing or preparing of the mortal remains is allowed provided those carrying out the task wear PPEs such as gloves, masks and waterproof overalls and all PPEs used must be disposed of immediately. However, the washing and preparing of the mortal remains by family members is not encouraged due to the health risks.”
The gazette has created divisions in some sectors of society. Some have claimed that other religions are allowed to wash their loved ones’ mortal remains while others, predominantly black African traditions, have been pushed to the curb.
Some families who feel hard done by because they are precluded from practising their customs, have spoken out about not being able to wash their relatives at mortuaries and the bodies not being allowed at their houses.
A member of the Shembe Church who asked not to be named, said they were not allowed to perform their rituals when a member passed away.
“There are families that prefer that a traditional healer must do something and if Muslims can wash their loved ones, why are others not allowed ukuthela impepho or intelenzi on the body? That is wrong,” he said.
Dr Nokuzola Mndende from the Icamagu Institute said what is happening in the country now was a clear indication of class divisions. He said due to the inability to wash bodies and see their loved ones, many people have ended up burying wrong bodies.
“Other religions are allowed to practise their customs but some are not. This is a painful thing. A body needs to be identified by the elders who would, in turn, assist in preparing the body for the burial. Now that people are not allowed to identify their loved ones, some have buried the wrong bodies,” he said.
Bodies and coffins of people who died of Covid-19 are also being wrapped in plastic, something that has not been sitting well with Mndende.
“I have been vocal in saying that if we need plastic, can we please make it transparent on the face so people can be identified. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently said it never indicated wrapping the bodies in plastic minimised transmission. So who decided on that in South Africa?” he asked.
Mndende further said, after the burial, some rituals needed to be performed on those who had gone to the grave location at the deceased’s house. However, that cannot be done due to current restrictions.
He also lambasted the police’s heavy-handedness when it cames to dealing with Africans. He gave an example of a situation in one of the rural areas that went viral on social media where police arrived to find a traditional ceremony taking place.
“They spilled the African beer being used to speak to the ancestor as well as the food. They were ruthless. Why couldn’t they speak to the owner of the property and explain that the regulation requires only 50 people and leave the food alone? They would not have done this if it was another race or class in society. This is disrespect for the African tradition,” he said.
The Department of Health could not be reached for comment after numerous attempts through phone calls, SMSes and emails. Its spokesperson, Dr Lwazi Manzi, forwarded the questions to his colleagues Popo Maja and Andiswa Cele, who did not respond.
A KwaZulu-Natal family was traumatised when a day after burying their brother they were told they had buried the wrong person and the grave had to be exhumed.
Sikhumbuzo Nzama from Durban, said they were told after the funeral that they had buried the wrong body.
“We thought we buried my brother, only to be told the next day that it was the wrong person. This has taken its toll on my family and it has cost us financially. The parlour had to exhume the body and we had to redo all the rituals we had done because in our culture it is vital to do all the rites and rituals for a deceased so that our ancestors can welcome the individual with open arms,” he said.
Vuyiseka Dosi from Centane in the Eastern Cape said that her deceased grandmother Lulama Damoyi was almost buried by another family.
“My uncles could not properly identify my grandmother because there was a glass covering her and it was very dark. But because the corpse had the same body size and wore the same clothes they had taken for my grandmother, they assumed it was her.
“On our way to the cemetery, the funeral parlour informed us that we had the wrong body and we needed to stop the funeral. The other family had insisted on removing the glass to be certain that they were going to bury the right person. We waited for four hours for my grandmother’s body to get to us. When it finally did, we noticed that she was wearing the other lady’s church uniform,” Dosi said.
Dosi said that they had to change the clothes in full view of those who attended the funeral and it was the most humiliating thing they have ever experienced.
In September 2020, two KwaZulu-Natal families sued the provincial Department of Health for R25 million (R15m for the Mateke family and R10m for the Maharaj family) in damages after a mix up that led to one family cremating the wrong body. The families were given wrong bodies.
Research Scientist and Director of Madisebo University Research Institute Dr Zulumathabo Zulu said that burying wrong bodies has serious spiritual implications.
“We are supposed to be spiritually connected with the dead and are supposed to perform certain rituals for them to give them spiritual fighting tools when they get to the other side.”
Zulu said that the spirit is very critical and gets lost if a family buries a wrong person and that this invalidates even the rituals being done.
“This is going to have a negative impact in the near future. There are spiritual laws which we cannot change. If a family buries the wrong person, the individual will not reach their destination and their spirit will just roam around,” Zulu warned.