Burying the forgotten dead

Forty unclaimed bodies are to be buried in Doornkop cemetery in Soweto on this particular Tuesday morning.

An undertaker confers with an official as they cross names and numbers off a list. Two men lean against bright yellow earthmovers, waiting for their cue in this burial scene.

People going to work walk through the gaping holes in the cemetery’s cement fencing and across the green grass. In the distance mourners stand around a child’s grave.

A family, en route to their mother’s grave, stops to ask whether their friend’s sister is being buried among the unclaimed.

The sister went into Jabulani Hospital a few months ago, they say, but when their friend went to see her, their friend was told she was not there. They are still looking for her but they think she is dead.

The sister is not among the seven adults and 30 babies being buried in Doornkop this time.

While adult “paupers” are buried three to a grave, up to the 30 of the small chipboard coffins containing the remains are babies are buried together at Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto.
While adult “paupers” are buried three to a grave, up to the 30 of the small chipboard coffins containing the remains are babies are buried together at Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto.

Small chipboard coffins for the babies, slightly larger than shoe boxes, are passed down to a man standing in an adult-sized grave.

He stands on the first layer of coffins so that he can better reach the next one.

They are not faring well in the warming sun and putrescent fluid has begun to seep through the coffins.

Not all the lids of the adults’ coffins are closed.

Some of the bodies are contorted. One coffin has the rather gruesome appearance of its inhabitant trying to escape. They froze in strange positions in the fridges, the undertaker says.

These bodies are identified but unclaimed.

Authorities know who the people are but no family has collected the bodies for burial.

Undertakers from Today’s Hope funeral parlour conduct a pauper’s burial at Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto. The cemetery began burying “paupers” last year.
Undertakers from Today’s Hope funeral parlour conduct a pauper’s burial at Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto. The cemetery began burying “paupers” last year.

Azwidowi Nevondo, a forensic officer at Hillbrow’s medico-legal laboratory, often has to help families who come to the facility looking for a loved one.

She clenches her fists when she talks: “People of South Africa, please, wherever you go, let one of the family know where you are. Don’t just disappear … It’s not only people from outside the country who are not identified, it’s also South Africans.”

When she asks when they last saw their loved one, it can be three months, five months, a year. “And you only come now looking for a missing person?”

It is a common story, heard from multiple people in this sprawling system. Sometimes families only realise that someone is missing when the maintenance payments stop or after months of no contact.

Nevondo shakes her head. “They cannot just sit and relax and think maybe you’re still alive somewhere, whereas maybe you’ve been dead a long time and the government had to bury you as a pauper.”

Forensic officer Azwidowi Nevondo is responsible for helping families identify bodies at the Hillbrow Medico-Legal Laboratory in Johannesburg, but she says the many bodies left unidentified in the mortuary’s fridges are rarely ever claimed. Worse still, the families of identified bodies often only come by months later.
Forensic officer Azwidowi Nevondo is responsible for helping families identify bodies at the Hillbrow Medico-Legal Laboratory in Johannesburg, but she says the many bodies left unidentified in the mortuary’s fridges are rarely ever claimed. Worse still, the families of identified bodies often only come by months later.

Shivani Reddy had thought her son was still alive.

Yes, she hadn’t heard from him in a while but that was his way. She had begun to worry when, after a few months, no one in the family knew where he was.

His cellphone went straight to voicemail.

Her son, Marcel Govender, had fallen through the cracks in the system. On December 5 2012, a cleaner had found his body in a hotel room in Kuilsriver in the Western Cape.

The police had written it off as an accidental drug overdose and, although they knew who he was, he was buried as a pauper. They destroyed his property — passport, ID document, clothes — after five months.

More than two years later, on February 16 2015, Reddy discovered that her son had died. Following the prolonged and worrying silence, she set up her own investigation, and asked the department of home affairs to look up his ID number.

It listed him as deceased.

“My child was registered. They had his passport, they had his ID,” says Shivani Reddy, whose son was buried as a pauper despite officials knowing his identity.
“My child was registered. They had his passport, they had his ID,” says Shivani Reddy, whose son was buried as a pauper despite officials knowing his identity.

Interviewed in November last year, Reddy said: “My question is: Why?”

“I’m not talking about foreign nationals, I’m talking about South Africans. We all have IDs … my child was registered. They had his passport, they had his ID.

“It would have been a different case if he hadn’t had an ID, and even if he was fingerprinted and they didn’t know who this person is, then I could understand.

“But they just found the body, sent it to the mortuary and closed the case unofficially.”

This does not sound like a singular occurrence.

In September last year, Major General Charles Johnson, acting divisional commissioner for the detective service, sent out a directive about the “numerous” complaints about unidentified bodies not being investigated.

A directive sent out last year lists the “numerous” complaints of police failing to identify a body or trace the family of an assumed “pauper”.
A directive sent out last year lists the “numerous” complaints of police failing to identify a body or trace the family of an assumed “pauper”.

He sent out the steps that every investigating officer has to follow before they declare someone unidentified or unclaimed.

But that is no comfort to Reddy.

It would cost her R13 500 to have Marcel exhumed, something their religion, Hinduism, demands.

“We believe the spirit is still roaming around,” she said.

“I want justice for my child. I want a proper burial. I want his body exhumed.”

This is unlikely to happen.

On December 28 last year, Reddy suffered cardiac arrest and died. Her family says they do not have immediate plans to exhume Marcel.

All officials in Gauteng say that, if a family comes forward after a pauper’s burial, they will be able to find the body of their loved one.

Every body has a lot number, the official line goes, and this information is easily accessible. No one in the forensic system or police service seems to doubt that a body can be exhumed at will.

But simply watching one of the regular mass burials suggests that this is not universally true.

In Ekurhuleni’s Elandsfontein cemetery, it is: small metal plaques testify to the people buried in that grave, a white number on a black background. They dot the green field like flowers.

But in the potter’s field at Doornkop cemetery, the only indication of graves are the depressions in the ground, where the soil has settled after the rains.

There are no markers identifying each of the dozens of craters that pock the ground.

Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto began burying paupers last year, but the graves remain unnumbered and unmarked.
Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto began burying paupers last year, but the graves remain unnumbered and unmarked.

When asked who is responsible for erecting markers, the undertaker says the Johannesburg City Parks official, but the official points to the undertaker.

“Grave number one starts there,” says Jafta Thusi, the cemetery official who oversees the burial.

He points to a depression just in front of a row of pine trees that separates the new potter’s field from the rest of the cemetery. It has been accepting unidentified and unclaimed bodies since July 2016.

“This is a new place, so no one has come to exhume bodies,” he says. “Maybe next year.”

But exhuming a body is not a simple process — the family first has to find the location of the body, prove to a magistrate that they are related to the person and pay for the exhumation.

And authorities do not release bodies to families lightly.

Undertakers from Today’s Hope funeral parlour conduct a pauper’s burial at Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto, while a City Parks official looks on.
Undertakers from Today’s Hope funeral parlour conduct a pauper’s burial at Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto, while a City Parks official looks on.

Professor Jeanine Vellema, chief specialist for South Gauteng’s medico-legal laboratories, grimaces and shakes her head when the subject comes up.

“You should hear the stories that people come up with to get their hands on bodies.”

She relates the story of someone trying to claim the body of a burn victim, their body charred beyond recognition. She raises her forearms, mimicking a burned corpse: “‘My cousin always used to raise his arms like that,’ they say.” But that’s called the “pugilist stance”, which commonly happens as the muscles in the arms stiffen and shorten in response to extreme heat.

Sometimes criminals recycle bodies through mortuaries, giving unidentified bodies names against which they have taken out life insurance policies.

Using bodies for life insurance fraud is a lucrative endeavour.

Garth de Klerk, chief executive officer of the South African Insurance Crime Bureau, says this is “rife” in the industry.

“Unfortunately, we are not in a position to quote statistics and for obvious reasons we do not give out the details around the modus operandi that are used in these frauds,” he says.

Children’s graves are marked with elaborate headstones at Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto, while the babies being buried as “paupers” just metres away go to their final rest in cheap, chipboard coffins.
Children’s graves are marked with elaborate headstones at Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto, while the babies being buried as “paupers” just metres away go to their final rest in cheap, chipboard coffins.

Burying bodies is also big business but no one is able to quantify just how big.

It had been difficult to find a pauper’s burial to attend. Employees at the Hillbrow medico-legal laboratory have no advanced warning of when an undertaker will arrive to collect the unidentified and unclaimed bodies that fill their fridges. Burying the unclaimed and unidentified is a municipal function and thus out of their control.

The City of Joburg’s tender for the service has been out for months. No one is able to say who held it before and ultimately officials stopped responding to inquiries. It appears that burial contracts are currently awarded on a monthly basis.


Burying bodies is also big business but no one is able to quantify just how big… ultimately officials stopped responding to inquiries.


It costs the municipality R1 500 to bury an unidentified or unclaimed body and R3 000 for a pauper.

But these costs are not included as a line item in any budget.

The Gauteng provincial government pointed to the provincial department of health, which did not respond to questions. The City of Johannesburg, in its 2012/2013 and 2013/2014 annual reports, lists the number of pauper and indigent burials it performed: both saw exactly 628 people (201 paupers and 427 indigent people) buried, suspiciously similar numbers.

A back-of-envelope calculation puts this cost at between R1-million and R2-million, although it could be more.

Tshwane’s annual reports do not have details of the number of indigent and pauper burials. Ekhuruleni in November put out a tender call for this service but, again, there is no information about who previously held the contract.

A stack of cheap chip-wood coffins containing the bodies of unidentified and unclaimed individuals await a pauper’s burial at Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto.
A stack of cheap chip-wood coffins containing the bodies of unidentified and unclaimed individuals await a pauper’s burial at Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto.

Back at Doornkop, this is the first time that undertaker Today’s Hope, based in Braamfontein, has buried unclaimed bodies. The bodies of the seven adults and 30 babies arrive in a white minibus, which trundles over the unpaved road.

Mthupi Mahamad, one of the company’s directors, is the only person in full protective gear. One woman wears a nose-and-mouth mask. Everyone is wearing gloves.

With rope and some difficulty, they lower the large coffins into the ground. The pits are 1.8m deep, the standard depth for burying a body, although perhaps not three bodies.

Today’s 37 burials take about 90 minutes — two graves filled with three adults each, one with 20 babies, and one with an adult and 10 babies.

The earthmover covers the open holes with mounds of waiting soil. The cast of people — relieved undertaker staff, City Parks officials, gawkers — disband and silence falls.

Sixteen empty pits sit in the shadow of the pine trees waiting for the next load of unclaimed or unidentified bodies.

This is the final story in a three-part series, made possible by a grant from the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Fund, run by Wits Journalism. It first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on January 13, 2017.

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Photo credit: Kristen van Schie

Kristen van Schie is a multi-award-winning journalist, having worked for The Star and international news agency Agence France-Presse. She has reported from seething post-coup Central African Republic, from a makeshift field hospital in drought-stricken Mogadishu, and from the icy decks of an ageing polar research vessel deep in the Antarctic Circle.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multi-award-winning science journalist. She has worked as science editor at Business Day and the Mail & Guardian, and has published two books on African science. Wild contributes to AfricaCheck, Nature, the Guardian, City Press, the Financial Mail, Research Africa, Business Day, Undark Magazine, ITWeb, and Independent Newspaper titles, Mail & Guardian, among others.
Sarah Wild

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