The dead also ‘feeling the heat’ of South Africa’s electricity crisis
- Unrelenting load shedding, coupled with high summer temperatures, continues to cause bodies to decay much faster than normal.
- South Africa experienced over 200 days of load shedding in 2022, but every day of 2023 has so far seen load shedding.
- Funeral parlours are said to be spending around $40 per day to power generators.
By CHRIS ERASMUS
South Africa has endured a higher level of load-shedding so far this year than any preceding it, and in late January and early February, also experienced record heatwaves across parts of the country, causing a logjam in processing dead bodies in mortuaries and crematoria.
While the heat waves have since abated — with many areas recording well over 40 degrees Celsius for several days in succession — the power outages have, if anything, worsened.
Authorities are unwilling to discuss the problems at crematoria and mortuaries due to legal requirements for the privacy of the information of both those who have passed away and more particularly their families.
One crematorium worker, who declined to be named as workers are not allowed to speak directly to media, said the situation was comparatively “worse” than at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic because the heat and extended power outages meant that more bodies were being held than could be disposed of and that “some are beginning to rot” due to outages.
The last time crematoria and undertakers were so backlogged was in the late summer of August 2021 when a wave of Covid-19 deaths overwhelmed facilities. Then, families were forced to wait up to a month to bury their dead.
Bury the dead quickly
But the combination of multiple outages daily, and hot weather, has meant that, rather than delay burials, families and undertakers are being encouraged to bury the dead as quickly as possible, and in any event, “less than four days”.
Maitland Crematorium, which services most of Cape Town, was during Covid-19 waves experiencing major backlogs, due to an increase in both natural death and Covid-related fatalities, while some private graveyards were then also waterlogged due to heavy rainfall.
At Maitland, while the number of bodies awaiting disposal has dropped to “normal” levels, the ability to maintain them has not kept pace.
Cape Town’s weather and most other major centres have moderated from the extreme highs of a few weeks ago, but the problem of dealing quickly with bodies that cannot be properly stored in refrigerated conditions due to outages has not eased at all.
Unrelenting load shedding, coupled with high summer temperatures, continues to cause bodies to decay much faster than normal, where backup power for cadaver storage is unavailable in most facilities nationwide, one industry body has warned.
The South African Funeral Practitioners Association’s (SAFPA) national secretary-general Vuyisile Mabindisa now wants people to bury their loved ones within four days of their death in order to ease pressure on funeral parlours and to ensure that they are buried with minimal decay.
“The industry is seeing a large number of putrefied bodies being buried. Burying one’s kin within four days, or less, is cost-effective and prevents families from seeing their departed ones in a poor state of decomposition,” he says.
South Africa experienced over 200 days of load shedding in 2022, but every day of 2023 has so far seen load shedding, including another current extended period of ‘Stage 6’, where power may be out for 4 to 5 hours at a time, sometimes longer, and more than once a day.
This means that backup power via diesel generators is very expensive or not viable to maintain cold conditions for numerous bodies at a time.
Mabindisa said the heatwaves South Africa has experienced this summer, along with extremely intense downpours, are causing the rate of decomposition of bodies awaiting burial or cremation to “skyrocket”.
For most of the country’s funeral parlour industry, the real pressure is in the pocketbook as the cost of keeping bodies at cold-room temperatures, due to ongoing electricity blackouts, and also the high cost of electricity, is cutting into profits and causing some smaller undertakers to consider closing down.
South African Chamber of Undertakers Chairman Nhlanhla Bembe says funeral parlours are spending around $40 per day to power generators, the organisation saying the government needs to offer subsidies to cover the cost of diesel for backup power.
“Load shedding has been catastrophic for the funeral industry and it has become very expensive to keep human remains because we have to pay for electricity and buy diesel for generators to power cold rooms,” he explains.
At one funeral parlour in Johannesburg, the owner says instead of spending money on more diesel, a larger number of bodies bound for the grave are being embalmed.
“When the fridges are not working, we are now faced with embalming bodies. It brings more costs. With load shedding it’s making life more difficult for us,” says Leon Matshiza, the funeral operator.