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Cape Town cemeteries filling up fast as Covid drives re...

Maverick Citizen


Cape Town cemeteries filling up fast as Covid drives record number of burials

New grave sites at the Maitland Cemetery near Cape Town. Cemeteries around Cape Town have been told to hold funerals during the week to help alleviate the pressure over busy weekends. (Photo by David Harrison)

For Cape Town undertakers 2020 was a record year, with burials in Maitland Cemetery, one of the biggest in the city, up by 28.5% to 4,108, from 3,197 in 2019.

In the first six months of 2021 the numbers accelerated again, with burials up 39.9% to 2,653, compared with 1,897 in the same period in 2019, while 2021 burials are 14.4% higher than the same period in 2020 when 2,312 were recorded.

Any open spaces are quickly filling up and the cemetery is now marked by row after row of thousands of fresh graves topped by wooden crosses. A number are squeezed in between the shoulder of the cemetery’s service roads and ageing tombstones. All these crosses have one thing in common — they bear the years 2020 or 2021.

Covid-19 is probably driving the increase in burials, yet according to the city’s figures, just 237 (6.5%) of burials in Maitland Cemetery between March and December 2020 were for Covid-19 deaths, while just 217 or 8.2% of burials for the period January to June 2021 were for Covid deaths.

maitland cemetery
One of several allotments in Maitland Cemetery with graves from 2020 and 2021. (Photo: Stephen Timm)

This appears to confirm the Medical Research Council’s finding that excess deaths since May 2020, now at more than 203,000, are almost three times higher than the number of official Covid-19 deaths, which stand at more than 70,000. 

Undertakers told Daily Maverick that when they are called to pick up a body, especially from a home, they’re never sure whether the person died of Covid-19.

“We only find out a person has Covid when we speak to the doctor. It’s scary,” said one undertaker, who asked not to be named.

covid-19 graves
Graves of those who died from Covid-19 in the Covid-19 burials section of Maitland Cemetery looking west, 4 July 2021. (Photo: Stephen Timm)

Ziyanda Trom, who manages Nozinga Funerals, says that sometimes the family of the deceased requests that the body is tested for Covid-19 before the funeral. She says the funeral parlour has approached doctors at clinics to conduct the test, but has been turned away more than twice and been told that they don’t test bodies.

The city’s head of cemeteries, Susan Brice, explains that often a family might elect not to have a body of a relative tested for Covid-19 before it is buried. 

Gravediggers prepare a grave at the Muizenberg Cemetery on July 28 2021. (Photo by David Harrison)

“Their bodies won’t be tested for Covid, no matter what the state regulations say,” she says, referring to a circular issued by the director-general of the Department of Health in August 2020 stating that all people who die at home or outside health facilities must be tested for Covid-19.

Brice, however, points out that the number of burials for natural deaths more than doubled in the second wave over the same period in the previous year. “You can’t tell me that all of those are road deaths,” she says.

In 2020, the city set aside an additional 4,000 burial spaces at Maitland Cemetery, a combination of newly established burial blocks and infill graves, including open gaps and pathways, found within the cemetery. The extra capacity is for all deaths, including Covid-19 burials which can be accommodated in any part of the cemetery. 

In addition, in January, the city announced it had allocated space for an additional 837 Muslim graves after other Muslim cemeteries, including Klip Road Cemetery in Grassy Park, ran out of space. The new space, most of which is in front of the kramat, is now more than half full, according to calculations by Daily Maverick.

Maitland Cemetery burials January 2019 to June 2021 (year comparison)

Source: City of Cape Town

Maitland Cemetery burials January 2019 to June 2021

Source: City of Cape Town

Zahid Badroodien, mayoral committee member for community services and health, says only one burial block at Maitland Cemetery has been set aside exclusively for Covid-19 fatalities — on the mountain side of the kramat of Shaykh Sayed Mehboob Ali Shah. A count by Daily Maverick reveals that this block contains only about 350 graves. Badroodien says this is not to say that Covid-19 victims aren’t buried among other natural deaths in the rest of the cemetery.

Meanwhile, last week the city reported an increase in burials. From just more than 300 in a week at the end of June, in the week of 19 to 25 July, they rose to 638, up from 488 in the previous week.

.In step with the increase, burial numbers are also up in Maitland Cemetery after falling sharply after the second wave. 

In the last week of June, the cemetery recorded its third-highest week of burials over the past two years at least, with 161 — more than double the highest week in 2019 (79). Yet, officially, only seven of the 161 burials were for Covid-19 deaths.
While burials may be increasing, undertakers Daily Maverick spoke to said things are not as bad as the second wave yet. Speaking last Thursday, Jacques Snyman, the manager of Avbob’s Maitland branch, said the company’s Maitland mortuary, which can hold 218 bodies, was still far from capacity as it held about 100 bodies at the time. 

But another undertaker, SA Funeral Trust manager Edward Meiring, says his funeral home now has a three-week waiting list for families who want a burial on a Saturday. 

Gravediggers pictured near an open grave on 23 July 2021 in one of several allotments for 2020 and 2021 burials in the Maitland Cemetery. (Photo: Stephen Timm)

“There is no space at mortuaries. You have to go pick up your bodies [for burial] immediately,” he says, adding that in the past funeral parlours were given up to two days to collect bodies.

Since 2020 the company has doubled its number of temporary workers to 200 to cope with the higher demand while due to shortages of raw materials it has shifted from assembling its own coffins to buying ready-made coffins, which has pushed up costs.

Meiring says many of the dead the funeral parlour now deals with were people who died in their fifties. “We don’t usually have so many young people [dying].”

A random sample of 29 names taken by Daily Maverick of graves from 2020 and 2021 in Maitland Cemetery seems to confirm this, revealing the average age of the deceased to be just 54.3. This is slightly lower than a random sample of 29 burials in the cemetery of those who died of Covid-19, where the average age is 56.1 years.

But for now, it’s back to work for Meiring and other undertakers. “You can’t turn off now, you have to stay on top of your game until the end of this wave,” he says. DM/MC


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