‘We’re doing 20-something funerals a day’: Small parlours pushed to the limit by Covid-19

Sam Masango, a carpenter at Malusi Coffin Manufacturers in Emdeni, Soweto assembles a coffin.
Picture: Sebabatso Mosamo

“Prior to Covid, we used to have an average of 35 to 45 funerals a week. Last week alone we did 105. We are averaging about 20-something funerals a day.”

This is according to Thabiso Moumakoe, general manager at Tshipi-Noto Funeral Services, which has 33 branches countrywide.

“Operationally, we are totally overstretched. We had never before reached a point where our refrigerators were packed full to capacity,” he said.

Like many smaller funeral parlours and service providers, Tshipi-Noto is being pushed to the limit keeping up with demand. The company, which has been in the business for 18 years, has had to change its business model amid the growing challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

While an average funeral costs R16,000, the company said it had been forced to add in more staff and procure PPE. Covid-19 regulations have forced it to rely heavily on other stakeholders, such as cemeteries.

“Families are frustrated that they can’t perform certain rituals, have to limit their services, are unable to bury at the time and date they wish to, and generally can’t mourn the way they know how to,” said Moumakoe.

“We have had a number of Covid-19 related deaths, especially the elderly. It is quite said in some instances. We would arrange a funeral today, three weeks later the same family would be back.”

A local funeral parlour in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, Ledwaba Funeral Parlour, said there has been an influx of bodies compared to this time last year.

Company owner Elias Ledwaba said: “Generally in winter there is a larger amount of people who are passing away, but now with Covid-19 it has increased to a point where we have a lot more funerals during the week. Usually our funerals used to be towards the weekend. We never used to have funerals on Mondays to Wednesdays, but now we are having more frequent funerals.”

Ledwaba, who has 30 years’ experience in the industry, said some families were not comfortable viewing the body because of the virus.

“Because there is such a fear around the virus, families aren’t necessarily doing anything in regards to washing or viewing the body. There are family members who just want to see the body just to confirm if it’s their loved one. Other than that, there isn’t much happening in regards to contact. There hasn’t been a lot of people demanding to view the bodies, but we have full PPE for those who want to view,” he said.

“Since there is nothing we can do, families who are more traditional and normally perform rituals are very understanding because I think they see that it is now out of our control. There are just certain things that cannot happen because we are in a pandemic.”

He said the new normal of having to procure PPE also came at a cost to the company.

“There are more expenses for us with the virus. It’s also not easy now because we have to provide people with PPE, and it also comes at another expense. It’s equipment that is pricey. As a business we also have to figure out and find a way around having the equipment and making sure that families are able to view when they want to,” he said.

Ledwaba added that some of his staff were pulling extra hours because of the influx of bodies.

Pontsho Phetla, 34, a mortuary assistant at the funeral parlour, said working with Covid-19 deaths was a challenge.

“It’s risky, but it’s controllable in a sense. We have our own personal protective equipment. We also have to double-check everything that we do. Safety comes first, obviously, and we also ensure that we follow the rules and regulations,” he said.

Phetla said his love and passion for his job helped to limit these challenges.

“At times, it might happen that the gloves break. You just have to take precautionary measures every day. Whenever I knock off, the first thing I do when I get home is take a bath — it is a must.

“At times I fear for [my family] — what if I am also being infected with the virus and then I end up infecting them?”

Phetla, whose job involves collecting bodies from various places, said he was grateful that he hasn’t been infected.

“The virus is real, it is there. We have multiple cases of Covid that we have admitted here, but we are so privileged that we are protected. There hasn’t been any Covid-19 case reported in this company since we admitted the first Covid-19 body,” he said.

He said though there were changes to mortuary processes, victims’ families found a way to observe their traditions.

“I cannot really say the virus has interfered with culture, in terms of performing rituals, because some can still perform their rituals. The only thing that has slightly changed is on the approach of the body.

“You can’t stop someone from performing their rituals, we just have to follow regulations. If they are wearing PPE to protect themselves, then they can do that.

“So they do perform their rituals, but only under strict conditions. We give them PPE and instruments.”

Ledwaba said there had not been a lot of people opting for cremation.

“There is a crematorium at Pretoria West that we have and use if the need arises. Many people that we have don’t prefer cremation, so we don’t have a number of people requesting cremation,” he said.

Moumakoe added that Tshipi-Noto had experienced a slight increase in the number of cremations, but there had been a mix-up that caused most families to postpone them.

By Nonkululeko Njilo and Shonisani Tshikalange – TimesLIVE

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