PE struggles under the weight of Covid-19 bodies

Those who help bury the dead – from gravediggers to undertakers – have been struggling to cope with the rise in demand during the second wave of the pandemic in Nelson Mandela Bay.

The second wave of Covid-19 infections has been putting those who deal with the logistics of death in Port Elizabeth under strain, from burial sites filling up to gravediggers putting themselves at risk and coffin manufacturers running out of wood.

Motherwell Cemetery, one of the biggest in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, is running out of space. Gravediggers have had to begin digging at dawn every day since the second wave of Covid-19 began, to accommodate all the bodies. 

Motherwell is a relatively new township. The apartheid state established it in the late 1980s to accommodate the growing Black population in and around Port Elizabeth, one that neighbouring townships like New Brighton, KwaZakhele and Zwide could no longer absorb. A piece of land almost the size of four football fields was designated the area’s burial ground in 1990, when the Zwide Cemetery, a burial site for Black people at the time, was full. 

Now, Motherwell Cemetery will soon be full, too. 

Freelance gravediggers

As more and more bodies require graves, the men who have the grim task of digging them face problems of their own. Some who have more than 20 years of experience are struggling to make enough money to make ends meet. And they do not have access to personal protective equipment. 

“Our normal pay for digging a grave is R950,” Thembinkosi Peter, 43, an experienced gravedigger said. “However, we are paid R1 050 for the hole that will accommodate a casket. Then R900 to re-open it. These are the amounts we have been paid before the pandemic started and we still receive the same figures. 

“It’s a lot of us on the site and therefore there’s no way of making enough money during this period. Considering that these are risky times, the undertakers should have increased the payments. But what they do is to chase us on a daily basis to make sure that the graves are ready for burials.”

30 December 2020: From front, Thembinkosi Peter, Ndabazandile Bilikwa and Thandani Gcadinja have been digging graves in Port Elizabeth cemeteries since 2001. They and their colleagues do not have PPE and are at ‘high risk’ of contracting Covid-19.

Gravediggers at the Motherwell Cemetery are hired on a freelance basis. Because of their status as freelancers, no entity feels obligated to attend to their needs – not the municipality, and definitely not the undertakers. 

A funeral parlour with plans to conduct a funeral on a particular day will call one of the regulars in the area and request that they prepare a grave. The hole should be ready in two days. If not, the gravedigger is not paid.

Odwa Duru, 46, the owner and chief executive of Odwa Duru Funeral Services, said the gravediggers work under funeral directors. “For instance, I would pay my diggers and they would dig a plot for me for a period of two days, then conduct the funeral. I am not allowed to just take any Tom, Dick and Harry and say, ‘Come dig a hole for me.’ We use a group of guys because they have their own union. They must have a digging number and they get it from their association.”

The gravediggers say they do not belong to any formal association or union.

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Peter’s last formal job, before taking up gravedigging, was as a general worker at Allswell Farm near Makhanda. That was in 1998.

In early 2002, unemployed and desperate, the father of six learnt of gravedigging as an enterprise. “One day, I went to the cemetery to clean my relative’s graves. At [the] time I was desperate for a job. Then I spotted a group of men who were working there. I wanted to find out how I could join them. They referred me to the caretaker’s office. I went inside and explained my situation. He promised to get back to me when the site was busy. 

“Four months later, he came to my home and told me that I should bring a spade, pick and hammer. Since then, I never looked back,” he said.

Peter has been braving the elements now for 18 years. He leaves home at 4am, when it is still dark and cold, to begin work early and avoid the day’s heat and accompanying dust. “The weather condition is always our major concern. When it is too hot, cold, dusty or raining we suffer a lot. There is no shelter, water taps or toilets facilities here. If anyone – including the mourners – need to release themselves, they go to the bushes nearby. We don’t even have a private space to bath ourselves.”

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For two days’ work, he might make R900. The availability of work has always been erratic. 

“Our clothes are getting damaged every day. For many years, we depend on borrowing boots and overalls from people who no longer need them in the township,” Peter said.

The rise in Covid-19 infections and deaths has not helped their situation.

“During this period of Covid-19 infections, we work without any protective gear. We were told that this disease travels by air and we feel that none of us is safe at the moment. Not a single person among us owns gloves, goggles or proper boots and overalls. We just work, hoping that we would be safe,” he said.

Olwetu Mzozoyana, 25, a consultant at Amagasela Funeral Directors in Njoli township, said that a client pays R2 000 for a plot, and R1 050 goes to the municipality and R950 to the gravedigger. Digger fees vary from parlour to parlour, however. Some pay R600.

8 January 2021: Brandon Fredericks, 40, adjusts a coffin in the showroom at Journey’s End Funeral Services in North End. Workers who handle Covid-19 bodies are required to wear full PPE.

‘Working for municipality would be better’

“Under current conditions, we feel unsafe. We hear that this second wave of infections is dangerous. We have wives and children and are scared of dying. They depend on us. But the money we earn is too little for the type of work we do, particularly around this period,” said Thandani Gcadinja, 58. He has been digging graves for years.

“The painful reality is that there is no risk allowance. We have no payslips. All of us are paid by envelopes … Maybe two or three guys can afford burial societies. The money I get cannot pay for medical aid. If I would be infected with Covid now and end up in hospital, no funeral director would come and visit me. I’m undocumented [no permits]. If you are sick, you are on your own. Even if you die, you will be buried like a pauper,” said Gcadinja.

Another gravedigger, Ndabazandile Bilikwa, 51, said it would be better if they could work for the municipality. “This pandemic has caused heartbreak and suffering to everyone, those affected and unaffected. As workers, we can’t even apply for small loans at the bank because no one seem[s] to recognise us. Every day we suffer in silence. Our duty though is to make sure that the grieving families bury their loved one with dignity,” he said.

9 January 2021: Mourners at a gravesite as the coffin is lowered after a brief funeral service at Motherwell Cemetery. The government has declared funerals superspreader events and the number of people attending may not exceed 50.

The funeral business 

Undertakers are facing problems of their own.

Journey’s End Funeral Services co-owner Jackie Oschman, 51, said that in the past she used to order coffins a day before. That is no longer the case. “You’ve got to order in advance. We have come together as a group of four [undertakers] and ordered 100 coffins from Durban so that we could have enough coffins divided [between] the four of us … There isn’t a shortage, instead it takes longer to receive them because of the demand,” she said. 

Thabang Ntwagae, 33, who is employed at Amagasela Funeral Directors, has been handling the bodies of Covid-19 victims since the pandemic started. One of his jobs, besides being a driver, is to collect bodies from local hospitals and homes. He also participates in burials. 

About their routine now, he said: “A Covid body is not allowed to be viewed by the family but they communicate with the client. From the hospital, we receive an already wrapped body in a sealed plastic bag. We are not allowed to reopen it. Then I take a picture of the name tag with my phone and send it to the person representing the family for confirmation.

“The families are not happy to fetch and bury the body that they have not seen. On our side, we always check the details of the deceased because we are required to take pictures of the name tags and show them. Lately, the mourners complain that some government officials get close to the coffin of a person who died of coronavirus. Others even attend the funerals without wearing any masks.”

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Imvusa Coffins in Queenstown supplies Journey’s End Funeral Services in Port Elizabeth with coffins. An Imvusa Coffins employee said the company did not have coffins for two weeks during the December holidays. “The problem is the wood. We can’t find it, it’s very scarce. We were expecting it today [on 12 January] but we can’t get the wood.” They sell all types of coffins, “starting from the cheapest ones, paupers, up until the last range. Flat lid foil and raised open face are among those that are popular,” she said. 

Odwa Duru Funeral Services had been under pressure long before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the second wave of Covid-19, said Duru. The two biggest challenges they have faced so far are running out of fridge space and struggling to get coffins. 

“Since July 2020, we noticed that people were dying drastically and dramatically and that still continues until today. We have been collecting bodies at Dora Nginza and Livingston hospitals regularly. In fact, we are burying about 37 Covid bodies on a normal Saturday, sometimes more. Then on a Monday, which was unusual during the first wave, we conducted close to 18 funerals. And [we are] again expected to conduct another 19 funerals the following day,” he said. 

9 January 2021: A cross ready to be placed at the head of the grave after a funeral at Motherwell Cemetery. Covid-19 victims are buried alongside those who have died of non-coronavirus causes.

The outspoken businessman who is widely known in the funeral industry in the Eastern Cape said he is a Covid-19 survivor. “I was infected with coronavirus and my mother succumbed to it … Together with my staff member, we managed to beat it. My own mother died of corona and I buried her at Forest Hill Cemetery on 15 December last year. I decided to place her in the same grave on top of my father who died of natural causes in 2015.” 

Beauty Ngcukana, Acting Director of Parks and Cemeteries in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, responded to questions about Motherwell Cemetery and the plight of the gravediggers by saying: “We don’t deal with publications. The communication department will contact us if there’s a query. So, anything that comes to us, should be written by them.” Ngcukana referred New Frame to Princess Tobin from the municipality’s communications department, who failed to respond to questions.

9 January 2021: Church leaders pray at a grave during a funeral service at Motherwell Cemetery. The municipality allows mourners 30 to 60 minutes to conduct services.
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