We try to support each other, and remember this is the work we have chosen
Makhanda’s undertakers are begging the community to take Covid-19 seriously as rapidly rising deaths in the town bring heartbreak for families and strain for those who help them through it. Sue Maclennan reports.
Caring for heartbroken family members, while meeting the strict requirements for funerals under the Covid-19 pandemic, along with keeping themselves safe, is putting funeral home staff and owners under extraordinary strain.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on Wednesday night declared a second wave of Coronavirus infections in South Africa, with the Sarah Baartman District and Nelson Mandela Bay leading the surge in the Eastern Cape. The Province is second to the Western Cape in its rapidly rising day to day infection rate. Here in Makhanda, Settlers Hospital is struggling to cope with the number of people seriously ill with Covid and needing care.
And local undertakers have urged Makhanda residents to do everything they can to stay healthy, as they witness first hand the spike in Covid-related deaths in our town.
“This illness is killing people,” says Siyabulela Titi. “People must be cautious with this thing.”
Titi Funerals in Paradise Road, Makhanda, usually has two or three families coming in to arrange the burial of a relative. From two or three deaths a week, the past two weeks have seen that number rise to 20.
“Most are Covid deaths,” Titi confirmed. “In a week, we now fetch around 13 people from hospital and about six or seven people die at home.”
Manager of family business Shoba & Shoba, Ponby Shoba, cites similar patterns.
“Before Covid, we arranged four burials a week. Now, we are having more than 10 graves a week dug at Mayfield Cemetery,” said Shoba.
Shoba’s clients, like Titi’s, almost always require burials rather than cremation. They used to organise four or five burials a week. In the past month, they have been doing double that.
“Of those, around five people a week are fetched from home and sometimes two a day from hospital,” Shoba said.
“More people are dying at home – and that’s very stressful for funeral home staff,” Shoba said. “Families don’t tell us when their relative has died of Covid, even if they know.”
Shoba’s staff collected four bodies from homes last week, and all were Covid-positive. Shoba and other undertakers have been supplied with testing kits by the Department of Health.
“Almost always, the results are positive when someone dies at home,” Shoba said.
Siyakubonga Funeral Services serves a wider area including Makana’s rural towns, as well as Peddie and Port Alfred.
Last week, they managed 24 deaths. Of those, 10 were confirmed Covid deaths. Of those 24, around half died at home. Director Ronel Mostert’s assessment of that pattern is slightly different though.
“There are people dying at home for Covid-related reasons: not always because they had Covid, but people who died – for example of heart attacks – because they didn’t go to hospital because they were
scared of Covid,” Mostert said.
“Removals from home are problematic though, because you never know, but you might suspect Covid,” Mostert said. “A family member might tell you the person had been coughing for the past three days and had refused to go to hospital.”
The funeral service installed extra fridges, expecting to be supporting the needs of the community through a pandemic predicted to have a far more terrible effect, given our high proportion of immune compromised residents.
“That is not the reality though,” Mostert said.
Siyakubonga keeps careful records and comparing them from January 2019 to November 2019 to the same period this year, there had been a 29% increase in deaths. *
The past two weeks have been a shock, though.
“The second wave has definitely been more severe and much quicker than the first wave: the number of cases (and deaths) has been very quick to rise,” Mostert said. “We went from handling 15 deaths in one week to 24 in the next.
“This is unprecedented.”
Last year, Siyakubonga received 7-10 bodies a week.
“That is also seasonal,” Mostert explained. “It goes up in winter, in cold weather, to around 14 a week. It also goes up in summer, when it’s very hot.”
Mostert speaks of the strain on everyone involved when managing Covid burials.
“We treat everyone as a potential Covid case – but our protocols are particularly strict when our staff go to the hospital.”
Siyakubonga employed 20 staff members, who had received excellent Covid safety training from Dr Stuart Dwyer, Mostert said.
“With that and proper personal protective equipment, we haven’t had any staff contracting Covid.”
Strain on staff
A direct outcome of the increased number of deaths is that funeral staff have to do removals of deceased person from hospitals and homes at all times of day and night, Mostert said. “On many nights there may be up to three or four removals spread throughout the night, following which staff still have to put in a full day’s work the following day.”
All of the funeral services, however, said the biggest challenge to staff was not from managing the bodies of people who had died from Covid, but in assisting their grieving families.
“As funeral undertakers, the majority of us are not affected by Covid,” Titi said. “I haven’t heard of anyone diagnosed – yet we handle Covid on a daily basis.
“But we don’t say we are safe.”
Particularly difficult is enforcing safety protocols for grieving families.
“Most of the families they don’t want to accept it,” Titi said. “We have to force matters and keep the service short. Some of the families beg to take the body home; some want to view the body.”
Mostert said, “People don’t understand: funeral services for Covid cases can only be 10 minutes at the grave.”
Like other undertakers, she was at the receiving end of families frustrations caused by the regulations for funerals under the Disaster Act.
“People have a lot of fear, as well as preconceived ideas. This is a very challenging time for undertakers, families, everybody.”
“For families these new kinds of arrangements are not easy,” agreed Avbob’s Nomonde Mali.
Dealing with so much traumatic grief and frustration affects staff.
“We try to talk to each other and remind each other as times get harder that this is the work we have chosen,” said Mali.
“What I can say is that this illness is killing people,” said Siyabulela Titi. “People must be cautious with this thing. Stick to the rules. Wear a mask. Sanitise. If there is no need to go to a funeral, then please stay home.
“Abuse of alcohol is making people negligent. Please – we need to take precautionary measures as much as possible.”
“It is traumatic for us to see a fridge full of dead people,” said Titi.
“This week we received a husband and wife, a mother and daughter. That is very stressful.
“Yes, this is our business, but we want it to be like it was – when people died because it was their time.
“Not like this.”
* In the version of this article published in GM DIrect, we cited a 13% increase. This comparative statistic was done in mid-November, Siyakubonga confirmed on Friday. The current percentage increase in deaths recorded by the funeral home is 29% (10 December 2020)