Newsweek Examines South African Makeshift Funeral Industry
Rising death rates in South Africa due to HIV/AIDS have led to the creation of a makeshift funeral industry, Newsweek reports. Many "fly-by-night undertakers," who are unlicensed and operate out of storefronts, compete to make funeral arrangements and leave bodies to decompose while they search for the cheapest means of disposal, creating a health hazard and raising costs to the government. The problem is greatest in Durban, capital of the hard-hit KwaZulu-Natal province. Morgues and cemeteries have run out of room and the unlicensed undertakers are "tempted to cut corners by mishandling bodies" -- burying them in mass graves or abandoning them in mortuaries. The government has not regulated the new undertakers, who are mainly black, because they were "previously disadvantaged," but established funeral directors, mostly white and Indian, complain that the new undertakers should be subject to the same regulations. The newcomers said they are "simply" subcontractors for licensed morticians -- they sell coffins and transport the body for burial while a licensed mortician washes, dresses and stores the body. Sometimes licensed morticians "front" for the newcomers by picking up bodies at morgues for a fee, a violation of health regulations.
Problem Will Get Worse
This corpse "shell game" often results in bodies being moved several times or left to decompose. As AIDS deaths rise, the problem will only worsen, Newsweek reports. Currently, AIDS-related deaths account for nearly a third of the country's 500 daily deaths and 40% of the deaths in KwaZulu-Natal, and deaths in South Africa could reach 16,000 a day by 2005, according to insurance experts. But talk of the rising death rate is "all but taboo" among government officials, who "taking their cue" from President Thabo Mbeki "barely acknowledge the extent" of the HIV/AIDS epidemic or the rising death toll. Because of the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, many families do not claim bodies, leaving the government to dispose of them at a cost of $150 each. The government has rejected the idea of cremating the bodies because African tradition stipulates that a person cannot enter the spirit world if his or her body is not buried intact (Masland, Newsweek, 9/17).