SA undertakers feel strain as Covid-19 exerts pressure – With insights from The Wall Street Journal

Written on 01/25/2021
Jarryd Neves

While doctors and nurses do all they can to fight the onslaught of Covid-19, many are still losing their lives to this deadly virus daily. Here, an entirely new group of frontline ‘heroes’ step in – the undertakers. Often forgotten, those who escort individuals to their final destination are under immense strain. The pandemic has skyrocketed demand for their services, but this has left the profession facing issues – with many dying of Covid-19 themselves. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Vice President of the National Funeral Directors Association, Lawrence Konyana, has said ‘the union is still compiling the total number of undertakers who have contracted Covid-19 and died, with many parlors too busy to respond to requests’. Below, Gabriele Steinhauser and Gulshan Khan of The Wall Street Journal document the turmoil that funeral parlour workers, undertakers and morticians face on a daily basis in South Africa. – Jarryd Neves

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South African coronavirus strain puts undertakers on front lines

Fast-spreading variant pushes Covid-19 deaths, infections to records, overwhelming funeral homes

By Gabriele Steinhauser of The Wall Street Journal/Photographs by Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

Updated Jan. 24, 2021 8:57 am ET

SOSHANGUVE, South Africa—Dressed in white protective suits, face masks and plastic goggles, the undertakers pulled up to the one-story home, in which the body of a man in his 80s lay in bed, still in his pajamas.

What they suspected, but hadn’t confirmed, is that the man died of Covid-19, ripped from his family as a new, much more contagious strain of the coronavirus is surging across South Africa and driving daily infections and deaths to record highs.

“Two days ago this person was coughing,” said Christina Broodie, the funeral parlor’s owner, clutching two iPhones that were constantly buzzing with calls from the bereaved. “Now they’re dead.”

Christina Broodie, owner of Broodie Funeral Parlour in Soshanguve, said she hired additional staff and is considering expanding hours to prepare for an increase in deaths in coming weeks.

Photo credit: Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

A brutal second wave of Covid-19 infections is pounding South Africa, powered in part by a new variant that scientists here say is much more transmissible than previous versions of the virus. The new strain is now by far the most common virus found in positive test samples in the country.

In laboratory experiments, the new variant also managed to escape antibodies generated during a previous bout of Covid-19. Those findings, which still need to be confirmed by additional research, have heightened concerns that the new strain could infect people a second time and make vaccines less effective.

South Africa’s variant has already been detected in at least 26 other countries, including Germany, China and Canada. In the U.K. and Belgium—along with Zambia and Botswana—researchers say they have found the variant in people with no travel history, indicating that it is already spreading through communities.

In South Africa, the rise in infections has overwhelmed hospitals and testing labs. Doctors in some of the hardest-hit cities said they had to ration oxygen and lacked the staff to provide standard Covid-19 care, such as turning patients on ventilators onto their bellies to help them breathe.

Although the number of new daily infections nationwide has dropped somewhat over the past week, in some provinces one in three coronavirus tests is coming back positive. The South African Medical Research Council said the two weeks of Christmas and New Year’s were the deadliest in the history of the country, which was at the center of the HIV and AIDS crisis of the 1990s.

People wait outside Broodie Funeral Parlour on Jan. 15.

Photo credit: Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

Many funeral homes struggled to procure coffins as deaths increased and manufacturers closed over the holidays. Photo credit: Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

With a battered economy and little hope of securing enough vaccines to inoculate the majority of its 60 million people any time soon, South Africa is struggling to respond. The government has banned large gatherings and the sale of alcohol, but restaurants, gyms and stores remain open. Health experts warn that South Africa and other African nations are likely to be hit by several more waves of infections in 2021.

Officially, 40,574 South Africans have died of Covid-19, but excess deaths since infections started surging in May are more than 112,000, by far the highest on the continent.

This large gap between the number of known Covid-19 deaths and the actual toll of the virus means undertakers like Ms. Broodie, a former teacher who specializes in burials in South Africa’s poor townships, are serving as informal public-health workers. They are often the ones who first tell a family that their loved one probably died of Covid-19, warning relatives that they, too, may have been exposed and need to get tested.

They also have to ensure that mourners wear masks and keep to a maximum of 50 guests at funerals, which South African President Cyril Ramaphosa recently said “have become death traps for many of our people.”

Mortician Karabo Chauke is seen in the freezer room at Broodie Funeral Parlour where bodies are stored. Photo credit: Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

Broodie Funeral Parlour employees lower a plastic-covered body into a casket as disinfectant is dispersed from a fumigator. Photo credit: Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

At the burial of Girlie Maluleke, an 80-year-old former factory worker who loved Nelson Mandela and learned how to read and write in her late 40s, pallbearers wearing baby-blue protective suits, masks and hair nets urged mourners to keep apart and handed out hand sanitizer.

“Let’s observe social distancing and flatten the curve,” one of them said, over the hum of excavators heaping dirt on nearby graves. Another sprayed down the path to the graveside with disinfectant.

In the first 10 days of the year, Broodie Funeral Parlour did 24 Covid-19 burials, compared with at most 12 regular funerals a week before the pandemic. Ms. Broodie has hired 40 temporary staff—in addition to the 12 permanent ones—and is training more morticians, drivers and funeral planners in preparation for an increase in deaths in the coming weeks and months. “We are thinking of opening 24/7,” she said.

A cemetery in Pretoria on Jan. 20. The two weeks of Christmas and New Year’s were the deadliest in the history of the country, the South African Medical Research Council said. Photo credit: Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

Pitso Maleka, who has built a business specializing in closing open graves, says he now has 2,040 workers, more than double the 970 he employed before the pandemic. “It’s an everyday thing now,” he said, dressed in a white shirt and pants with his cellphone number emblazoned across his back. “Today we’ve had 11 funerals. Yesterday 22. Tomorrow five.”

Ms. Maluleke fell ill over the holidays, complaining of pain in her back and a burning in her chest she likened to acid reflux, said her granddaughter, Khensane Maluleke. Within days, Ms. Maluleke became unresponsive and by the time her granddaughter took her to a Johannesburg public hospital her oxygen saturation had dropped to 42%. Doctors told Khensane that her grandmother had double pneumonia and put her on a ventilator.

She died on Jan. 4, three months before her 81st birthday. The cause of death, the hospital said, was Covid-19.

Family and friends attend a memorial service via Zoom. South Africa’s coronavirus restrictions limit the number of people present to 50. Photo credit: Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

Mourners at the memorial service for Mr. Mncube. Photo credit: Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

The second wave of infections caught many South African funeral operators by surprise. Some have run out of refrigerated storage space to keep bodies. Many struggled to source coffins, as manufacturers shut down over the holidays. And increasingly, undertakers are testing positive and dying from the virus.

Lawrence Konyana, the vice president of the National Funeral Directors Association, said the union is still compiling the total number of undertakers who have contracted Covid-19 and died, with many parlors too busy to respond to requests. “We’re starting to bury our own,” he said.

For families, the virus has changed the way they can bid farewell to their loved ones. Ms. Maluleke’s granddaughter said she wanted to return her grandmother’s body to the village where she was born and where her siblings are already buried.

Funeral-parlor worker Peter Broodie is often the last one to see a Covid-19 victim’s body before burial. Open-casket viewings are no longer permitted because of restrictions. Photo credit: Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

Relatives and friends would traditionally have traveled from all over the country, but instead she opted for a smaller service in her grandmother’s home in a township outside Johannesburg, where the number of mourners was limited to 50, in keeping with South Africa’s coronavirus restrictions.

Family members are also no longer allowed to dress the deceased or hold open-casket viewings. Peter Broodie, who works at his aunt’s funeral parlor, is often the last one to see and to touch a Covid-19 victim’s body, carefully draping the family’s chosen outfit over a white, plastic body bag.

Before closing the coffin for a final time, Mr. Broodie usually says a prayer. “Please God,” he said, “will you please stop this Covid thing?”

Palesa Motau, left, along with her aunt Teboho Tsotetsi, at the gravesite of her father, Mr. Mncube. Photo credit: Gulshan Khan for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at

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Appeared in the January 25, 2021, print edition as ‘Covid-19 Strains South Africa’s Undertakers.’