Johannesburg - Funeral undertakers are concerned over delays in the issuing of death certificates as Covid-19 related deaths surge in the country.
In the first two weeks of this month, one funeral parlour saw an increase of more than 70% in burials and a 44% increase in December compared to the same time last year.
The South African Funeral Practitioners Association (SAFPA) in the Western Cape appealed to authorities to help speed up the death certificates process.
“If the Home Affairs offices are not closed for decontamination after a Covid-19 related incident, then their systems are down. It's frustrating because funerals associated with the virus have to be conducted within 72 hours," SAFPA provincial spokesperson, Mpumelelo Mntu said.
He said delays in the issuing of death certificates had a ripple effect as families need to claim from life insurers for the funeral service.
Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced this week that some services would be suspended at offices nationwide after 266 offices had to close since the beginning of the lockdown in March due to staff testing positive for Covid-19.
According to the spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs David Hlabane, as of Friday, 43 Covid-19 cases were confirmed at Home Affairs offices in the Cape Metro. Out of 82 cases in the Western Cape Province, there was one death.
Hlabane said Western Cape Home Affairs front offices prioritised death registration daily from 8am until noon.
“Funeral undertakers and families registering deaths use a separate queue and attend a dedicated front office counter. In adherence to the Disaster Management Act regulations, only 50% of floor capacity may be occupied,” said Hlabane.
A mobile unit would be deployed to increase access for clients.
Since Wednesday, the department extended operating hours, to prioritise birth and death registrations, and also enabled death registrations to be done at hospitals which had Home Affairs facilities.
Hlabane said mobile units were also used in hotspots identified by the Department of Health.
“The Department of Home Affairs is also represented at the Fatality Management Work Group, chaired by the Western Cape Provincial Government. The Work Group comprise multi-departmental and sectoral competencies from all districts in the Western Cape. Any issues raised by departments, stakeholders or district representatives, are addressed immediately“, he added.
Mntu said what also compounded the industry’s “frustrations” were delays in issuing certificates to trained members who can register deaths with the department of home affairs.
"Some of our members did training with the department in 2019 but have yet to be issued with certificates enabling them to register deaths. Our resources get stretched as members run around trying to register and get death certificates for customers. Sometimes, we have to queue a full day,“ Mntu added.
Another industry player, AVBOB, described the challenges faced by the industry as “serious”.
AVBOB General Manager Pieter van der Westhuizen said shipping containers which were used as cooling facilities for bodies were extended to areas such as Khayelitsha, Maitland, Somerset West and Bellville.
"These are trying times. None of our staff members have died due to Covid-19. However, they work in a dangerous environment," van der Westhuizen said.
Suppliers to the funeral industry said the demand for products in the cities and metropolitan areas was high due to the "easy transmission'' of Covid-19 in those areas.
"What tends to skew the demand and make the demand look far higher, is the shortage of supply. Most of the supply companies are inundated with orders, but the materials are either abroad or not available, reducing the supply and increasing the demand even further. When the first restriction was announced, the main board supply to South Africa had to close shop under restriction rules," said chief executive of SA Funeral Supplies, Ricardo Yenketsamy.
He added that while staff used to work an eight hour shift, five days a week under "normal circumstances", they now had to implement staggered shifts, six to seven days a week, with separate teams working night shift and most weekends.
Mntu said while there was talk of prioritising the health workers for the vaccine, there was no talk of including the industry.
" We are also right at the coalface of the pandemic and should be regarded as frontline workers", Mntu said.
He said the association was experiencing a shortage of coffins and had to plead with customers to postpone burials while they were trying to source these.
He also appealed to the City of Cape Town to speed up the processing of applications for burial plots as delays caused "an extra unnecessary burden".
The City's mayco member for community services and health Zahid Badroodien said the increased burial demand had resulted in the "near doubling" of burials.
However, burials were now being spread throughout the weekdays to make it easier to manage.
"The Maitland crematorium has also experienced double the number of cremations, and in response, they are working 24 hours a day, Monday to Friday, with 12 hour shifts on Saturday," Badroodien said.
He said extensions of the Atlantis and Welmoed cemeteries were completed while a planned cemetery in Mfuleni would be opened once the necessary stages were completed.
While some concerns had been raised by the public about possible environmental impact of Covid-19, Badrodien said burials associated with the Covid-19 virus had not been proven to pose an environmental impact, any more than other burials.
"The length of time that the virus remains viable after burial is unknown at present. There is no specific regulation which prohibits Covid-19 fatalities from being buried in family graves nor be limited to specific burial blocks," he added.
However, additional burial space to cater for the increase in burial demand had been prepared.
"The City encourages cremation where religion and culture do not prohibit this practice. To facilitate higher numbers of burials in our cemeteries, people are encouraged to bury during the week, to adhere to scheduled/booked time of arrival and limit the burial to a maximum of 30 minutes in the cemetery," he added.