South Africa News

Unclaimed bodies piling up at KwaZulu-Natal mortuaries

Unidentified bodies are piling up and the smell is getting worse.

These are the issues that employees at the Fort Napier mortuary in Pietermaritzburg have to deal with every day.

According to sources inside the mortuary, these problems have been ongoing for years and are getting worse by the day.

Speaking to Weekend Witness, a source said the bad smell starts from the parking lot and worsens by the time a person approaches reception.

It is caused by bodies that have been there for a long time and as a result of cold rooms that are not working properly, the source said.

“The cold room for the unidentified bodies is full and we no longer have body trays available, so we are forced to take the trays from the other cold room. On top of that, the smell is unbearable. No matter how hard we try to clean, nothing makes a difference,” the source said.

The source said that there are over 200 unidentified bodies in the mortuary and some have been there for years. No one is doing anything about it, he addded.

Another source said: “Nothing is right in that place. Bodies are decomposed and they are still kept there and it has been years. We are working there because we need jobs and money, but it is not right.”

Nehawu regional spokesperson Mazwi Ngubane said the situation is so bad that people find it difficult to breathe properly when they are there. He said they have been trying to get the Department of Health to deal with the matter since 2018, but in vain.

We don’t know why they’re not burying these bodies because there is a policy that states if a body is not identified after a certain period of time, the government must bury that body. Why would you keep unidentified bodies for years without burying them? The fridges are full and there are still bodies that keep on coming in almost every day Ngubane said the situation is taking its toll on the employees — both mentally and emotionally.

“They are expected to work and eat under these conditions every day, which is not fair to them. It is even difficult to attend meetings there because of the smell, because by the time you come out you have a bad smell all over your body and clothes.

“We are going to submit our grievances to the Department of Health next month and we will give them time to sort them out. If they do not we will have no choice but to shut it down.”


Meanwhile, bodies left unclaimed going back to the April floods have started “decaying” at the cramped Phoenix government mortuary. The Phoenix Medico-Legal Mortuary is Durban’s biggest government-owned mortuary.

On average it receives about 70 bodies a day, according to the KZN Department of Health. Since the closing of the Gale Street Mortuary — located in the Durban city centre — in 2020, the Phoenix mortuary has been taking extra strain. A worker who spoke to Weekend Witness on condition they weren’t named, said they have resorted to placing bodies on the floor as space on the shelves has run out.

“Maybe the public does not appreciate how much of an emotional toll this job takes on us. It is not easy having to put someone’s husband, father, son or daughter on the floor and have to face the already grieving family,” they said.

Bodies lying on the floor is not something new to the mortuary. This happened during the July unrest last year and the recent April and May floods, where Durban suffered mass casualties.

The worker said a good portion of the bodies are from the recent floods, but they are not “100% sure” if there are any left from last year’s unrest.

Last month, The Witness reported on a protest held at the mortuary by the families of people who died during the floods.

The families were demanding the release of their loved ones’ bodies and were frustrated at the slow pace of the police’s DNA results, which are needed before a body is released from a government mortuary.

Wendisiwe Mdlalose, from Inanda, said three of her siblings are still in the Phoenix mortuary.

Since their protest, Mdlalose said the DNA results have not returned and they still have not been able to have funerals for the deceased.

“It hurts hearing on the news that the bodies are decaying when we have been begging the government to release them so they can have a dignified funeral,” she said.

These sentiments are shared by Delani Mhlongo, whose daughter, Noluhlapho Dladla, is still in the Phoenix mortuary.

Ayanda Zulu, regional spokesperson for National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), said this is putting a lot of strain on the workers.

There is a horrible stench emanating from the bodies and this is a clear violation of the worker’s health and safety standards in the workplace. On top of that, the workers are not being supplied with protective gear
Zulu said they have engaged the Health Department on the issue, however, he said it is clear that the government needs to open another mortuary in Durban to stop this from recurring.

The KZN Health Department issued a statement yesterday saying that the mortuary is not “full”, something that is contrary to the images and the comments Weekend Witness have received.

The department said the field of pathology and forensic suffers from a shortage of human resources, which sometimes exacerbates problems like these.

“Generally, autopsies tend to differ in their nature and scope, depending on the circumstances under which a person has [died], and thus require different kinds of intervention.

While some autopsies may be completed with relative ease and released for burial, others require various forms of investigation which is outside the control of the department,” the statement reads.

The DNA results, which are stopping the release of people who died during the floods, are done by the SA Police Service forensic unit.

That unit has historically suffered huge backlogs due to staff, capacity, and equipment shortages.

“We do, however, wish to clarify that even in cases where there may be spatial challenges due to the accumulation of bodies, management of the mortuary has the prerogative to, at any point when it’s deemed necessary, move bodies to neighbouring medico-legal mortuaries such as the one in Pinetown, Magwaza Maphalala [Ex-Gale] Street Mortuary and elsewhere to create space,” reads the statement.

KZN Health said it will be monitoring the situation in Phoenix.

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