‘Morgue jobs making us sick’

As more than 1 300 unclaimed bodies lie in KZN mortuaries, morgue staff dealing with decomposing bodies and stench say they desperately need help. | Bongani Mbatha/ Independent Newspapers

As more than 1 300 unclaimed bodies lie in KZN mortuaries, morgue staff dealing with decomposing bodies and stench say they desperately need help. | Bongani Mbatha/ Independent Newspapers

Published May 5, 2024


Durban — Thousands of people go missing in South Africa every year and many might be in a mortuary in KwaZulu-Natal while desperate families search for their loved ones to bury them or find closure.

As 1 336 unclaimed bodies lie in KZN mortuaries, the National Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) told the Independent on Saturday that mortuary workers desperately needed counselling services because their work made them sick.

Every day they work in overcrowded facilities, with bodies in various stages of decomposition and, coupled with the overwhelming stench, it had become impossible to carry out their duties.

Last week Health Minister Joe Phaahla revealed that KZN had the highest number of unclaimed bodies among the 3 000 in SA mortuaries.

On Friday, Health Department spokesman Foster Mohale said there were various reasons nobody had claimed the bodies: some might be from other countries, some might have been found by police when they were already decomposed or authorities could not locate their families.

If the body was decomposed when it was discovered, “you can’t tell who it is because sometimes you just find that the insects were feeding themselves. Sometimes you just find the skull or the skeleton so it’s difficult to tell. If a case was opened, the forensics would try to investigate further to check what could have led to the death,” said Mohale.

Some bodies were burnt or harmed in such a way that it was impossible to determine the gender or age, or family members of missing people failed to check in other provinces because they did not expect their loved ones to be far from home, said Mohale. If people were homeless, they may not have friends or family to know they were missing.

If people died in a car crash, it was “easy to identify the body, unless the car was stolen. The registration number on e-Natis will tell us who the car belongs to as well as the address and contact details. Then we’ll come to you and say your car was involved in the car accident”.

The unclaimed bodies have exacerbated the overcrowding problem in the province’s mortuaries.

Nehawu provincial secretary Ayanda Zulu said a huge part of the problem could be attributed to overcrowding and the hundreds of unclaimed bodies that had been in government facilities for several years.

“The smell makes you sick,” said Zulu.

He said the problem was compounded by the closure of the Gale Street Mortuary in Durban a few years ago and the remaining facilities having to pick up the overflow.

“We need to build another Gale Street in a more central area of Durban in response to overcrowding in other mortuaries. And health officials must work together with SAPS because for many, many years no one has come forward to identify bodies.”

Zulu said they had raised these concerns with the Department of Health but nothing had been done to resolve the problem.

“There are no timelines, but they have agreed that we are correct. There are cost-cutting measures in government so they will always say they can’t do this, they can’t do that,” he said.

Last year the Independent on Saturday reported on the fly-infested Phoenix mortuary where dozens of rotting corpses had been piling up, some dating back to the 2022 uprising which left nearly 500 people dead.

At the time mortuary workers said they gagged every time they entered their workplace because of the stench and that many of the corpses had been dumped on the floor because there wasn’t enough space in the fridges. In addition they didn’t have the proper protective gear or cleaning materials to carry out their work.

This week the provincial health department said the issue of unclaimed bodies was raised by the national minister and all questions should be directed to his office.

Independent on Saturday