There are 230 unidentified bodies in storage at Salt River mortuary alone.
Cape Town - There are 495 bodies lying in freezers across the Western Cape, waiting for somebody to identify them.

These bodies are unknown and unclaimed - police have not yet figured out who they are, or where their family is.

The oldest at Salt River Forensic Pathology Service (FPS) is 13 years old. It arrived in 2006 and is now just desiccated remains of skin and bone. It’s packed in a temperature-controlled shipping container outside the building, along with 229 other unidentified bodies. 

According to regulations, these bodies shouldn’t be kept for more than a month, but they often stay far longer, said forensic officer Calvin Mesane.

“That container is quite full currently with unknown bodies,” he said. 

“Regulations passed recently said that we should hold a body 30 days for the longest, but it’s the prerogative of the policeman who’s investigating the case. It’s up to the investigating officer to track down the identity and family of the deceased, but this often takes a while.

“If you look at our policemen, they are so inundated with cases, so they would rather investigate a case of theft or assault or whatever’s urgent than to look for unidentified people. So that basically ends up at the bottom of the pile all the time,” Mesane said.

The police officer can write a letter requesting an extension of another 30 days, and if no family is found after investigation, the officer will give the go-ahead for the body to be processed as a pauper.

“Once we’ve got that, it’s a couple of weeks and that body is gone. The municipality will bear the cost of that funeral,” he said.

Out of respect for the family who may still turn up in search of their loved one, Forensic Pathology Services (FPS) keep a box of ashes and a death certificate. There are currently 602 unclaimed boxes of ashes at the Salt River facility alone, some dating back to 2012.

Ashes of unidentified and/or unclaimed deceased at the Salt River Forensic Pathology Services facility. Picture: David Ritchie / African News Agency (ANA)

The small boxes are much more efficient to store than whole bodies, but cultural considerations mean that many unknown bodies are kept as is in the freezer.

“For cultural reasons we hang on to it for as long as we can,” Mesane said. “People might come back and want the remains, because they don’t believe in cremation. Africans would like a body to bury, even if it’s bones. They don’t want the ashes, really.”

Next year, Salt River FPS will be moving to a new state-of-the-art facility currently under construction next to Groote Schuur Hospital, but there are already concerns that it won’t be big enough for all of the bodies.

“In the new facility, they’ve made space for 360 incoming, 360 outgoing, and there’s space provided for obese bodies,” Mesane said.

“But if you take what we’ve got (currently) in the container, in the freezer, what’s standing on trolleys, then that space is almost looking too small. If we take everything over there, we’ll probably fill half that space.”

The biggest obstacle to storage space is the unidentified bodies, which lie in the freezer for long periods of time.

“If processing the unknown bodies gets streamlined properly, then we won’t have a problem.”

FPS spokeswoman Deanna Bessick said the oldest remains in storage were there because they were awaiting further testing.

“The few cases that have been with us since 2016 and 2017 are because they are skeletons (or even just a bone) and have been retained for more specific testing such as forensic anthropology and facial reconstruction by the SAPS forensic science lab in Pretoria,” she said. “As they take little space, there is no rush to dispose of such.”

Weekend Argus