No rituals, no vigils: Funerals not what they used to be before Covid-19 onset

The process of burying a loved one is often a week-long affair - the gathering of essentials, family members from far and wide and consultations with the funeral parlour.

At last when all is settled, the family is allowed time to pray over their loved one in a night-long vigil for an easy passing over to the 'other side'.

Many people will then gather in the morning for the funeral service to pay their last respects. These are funerals as we've always known them. But now, all of that has changed following the outbreak of the coronavirus in SA.

The pandemic has changed the way death is handled. It has also changed the way those who deal with death work everyday. It has been a scramble for the funeral industry to adjust to the changes brought by government in its effort to flatten the curve. There can be no more than 50 people at the service, an attendance register is signed and handled by funeral parlours.

No more night vigils. The mortuary cannot keep a body for more than a week. In the event of a Covid-19 death, the body cannot be at the morgue for more than 48 hours.

The body can no longer be sent home the night before the funeral, it's straight from the morgue to the cemetery, and there are no lengthy funeral services with only an hour suggested. Another thing that has changed is that family members, most common in black communities, can no longer come to "fetch the spirit" of their loved ones.

The new norm has caused anger among the people, according to Raymond Hloni Swart, owner of Hloni's Funerals in Molapo, Soweto.

"Normally, on Thursdays, the family will come to dress the body but we don't allow them to do that anymore [as per regulation].

"Families have a huge problem because some of them want to perform their rituals but we cannot even allow them to do that. It is a challenge for us and them but under the circumstances we have no choice," he said..

Those funeral parlours who are registered and are represented by a union have dropped their package prices in an attempt to help financially strained communities. Before the pandemic, the entry level package for a funeral was R7,000.

This included the hearse, a family car, tent with 40 chairs, two tables, a toilet and one bus. The other entry level package is R16,000. This consists of two family cars, a big tent with 100 chairs, four tables, a bus and hearse.

"We had to cut down because our packages are based on the coffin. Now if you charge R7,000 on a coffin and you can't offer a client basically what they used to get, then you have to reduce the price. For example, [in] the R7,000 package, we have to take out the bus, the tent and we have to take out the toilet, so basically you have to sell that package for R4,000 or R3,500."

The decision to remove those services came from the National Funeral Practitioners Association of SA (Nafupa), so as to not encourage people to stay at the funeral and adhere to social distancing.

Swart says before the lockdown, he had 90% of paying members but now only 40% of those clients are paying their policies. "Our policies are month-to-month with the underwriters, so if a person doesn't pay for two months it's going to lapse. But we also can't force money out of them, some of our clients work for themselves, so they pay mostly what they can get."

Swart said he was still waiting for the government to organise training for undertakers. Fortunately, Nafupa has started organising their own training to assist smaller operators. His business has been affected by the reduction of prices and the cost of buying personal protective equipment (PPE) for his employees.

"It affects us a lot because we struggle. We have to keep our employees at home. It's also a frustration for them because they're used to working everyday but now they need to cut down because there won't be salaries to pay them all.''

Nafupa president Muzi Hlengwa appealed out to government to talk to them about the regulations.

"The government sat with the taxi industry, on numerous occasions, and has supplied them with sanitisers. But what about us? Why aren't we given the same attention as other companies?

"They're not even saying at least a R100m or R1bn will be given to the funeral industry so that we guarantee our peoples health and safety... We are in the front line. Every day we meet people and every day we remove bodies and bury bodies. It's as if we don't exist," he said in exasperation.

Hlengwa said the cost of PPE is astronomical, for just two staff members, they have to change the safety equipment nearly at every step.

"The risk that comes with it is nothing compared to the money we are spending now. As things stand as per body, you will be spending more or less R3,000 on PPEs. The handling of one body, you have two employees, the driver and the assistant going to remove a body from home or hospital or a government mortuary.

"They both should be in PPEs, as they take the body and put it into the car, they have to dispose their PPEs, everything - shoe covers, masks, gloves, coveralls and head covers. They repeat this shedding of PPEs six times."

He said the prices of the safety equipment has gone up, stating that they spend close to R85 for a N95 mask when it used to be around R65. Coveralls have gone up to R250, and normal surgical masks (which are not worn by parlour employees) which used to go for R5 are now R20.

"The prices have gone up in a very ridiculous manner, everything is now expensive. It is very expensive for us to be in this industry right now."

Another issue Hlengwa pointed out was the inconsistencies from the regulations.

"They change laws every day and this is what is really worrying us.

"We have trained our members, we tell them follow this... 1, 2, 3... but then the next day it's another story."

The regulations still state that the body after being washed and dressed should still be put in a plastic bag. Families can now view the body, provided they're in PPE.

President of the National Funeral Directors Association Dr Lawrence Konyana said: "One of the biggest hurdles has been [lack of] communication with authorities in terms of clarity on certain regulations."

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