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New York Times chronicles difficulties of burials in pandemic South Africa

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Global media giant, the New York Times, has reported this week on how the country’s strict laws around burial procedures and funerals during the pandemic are changing the way many black South Africans are burying their loved ones.

A Times article published on Friday 10 July relates the story of Khayelitsha taxi owner Zinzile Mweli, who passed away from COVID-19 last month.

But, being from the Eastern Cape, his family were intent on returning him to his home village for burial among his ancestors. But it was never going to be easy.

Rules around travel for funerals are highly complex

“The new rules around travel for funerals are so complex, and add such extra expense, that they have become practically insurmountable for many families, according to funeral directors and community leaders in Cape Town,” the newspaper reports.

“For some poorer families, the rules are forcing a choice between breaking tradition and breaking the law.”

The article explains that, while South Africa is now attempting to reopen and easing some restrictions, the rules around funerals are still in place. Attendance at funerals is capped at 50, and overnight vigils and body viewings are banned.

Going home to villages is still the norm for life events

The Times notes that for many black South Africans who have moved to the towns and cities from rural areas to find work, going home to their villages is still regarded as the norm for major life events, including funerals.

“But health officials fear that mourners from the city will carry the virus to rural areas that are among the most vulnerable in South Africa,” it explains.

“So now, after a loved one’s death, relatives living in Cape Town must apply for travel permits with the police, and only close family members are given permission: no cousins, no close friends, no neighbours.”

Cost of complying is prohibitive for poorer families

The Times explains how there have also been changes to how a body is moved that have made the cost prohibitive for poorer families. Before the outbreak, it was common for mourners to pack together closely in a minibus and to tow the body behind in a trailer.

Now, the corpse must be transported in a separate vehicle, attended by a certified undertaker, meaning that cash-strapped families must hire at least two vehicles.

A week of back-and-forth to get necessary permissions

For the family of Zinzile Mweli, it was a week of back-and-forth between government departments, applications, forms, queues and, ultimately, approval to travel home to the village of Xonxa, where Mweli had met his wife nearly 50 years ago and from where they left for Cape Town in 1985.

But even then it was not a happy ending. Bodies of COVID-19 victims are required to travel directly to the grave, and local health officials took possession of the coffin when it reached the village.

The family waited to be called for the funeral. But later that day, they found out from local officials that their loved had been buried without them.

Family believes the deceased’s spirit is now not at peace

The family, now back in Cape Town, believes that his spirit is not at peace and that this, in turn, will bring them misfortune.

As soon as possible, they plan to return once more to Xonxa, where they will exhume Zinzile Mweli and lay him to rest in the proper manner.

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