Undertakers take on a job few people want to do. Even more so in the midst of a killer pandemic. As thousands succumb to COVID-19, pressure is mounting on funeral parlours.

Bodies arrive hourly, shifts are being doubled. Undertakers say ever since the pandemic hit South Africa they have become under pressure at work as COVID-19 takes more lives on a daily basis. They now work twice as they normally would have to go on to work 16-hour shifts.

One undertaker says it’s not just the workload, but also the emotional pressure too, which is unprecedented.

“As this one goes out, someone else comes in. This is a person who died of a gunshot,” says one undertaker.

Specific protocols are followed.

Black Phoenix Funeral Parlour Undertaker, George Dlodlo, says COVID-19 related deaths get covered into body bags.

“What you see there is a confirmed COVID case. It’s been put in two body bags. It’s been clean-wrapped as well. So from the hospital, when we took the body, it’d been put in a coffin immediately. From the hospital, it’s stored as it is,” Dlodlo explains.

Funeral parlours lament the pressure they are under owing to the increased number of COVID-19 deaths:

Funeral within three days

All deceased are treated as COVID victims until the post-mortem result is completed.

“We have pick-ups at home where we don’t know the cause of death. Someone just died at home. We ask for symptoms, but the most important thing is that the body would be treated as COVID,” says Dlodlo.

Following a death, a funeral must be held within three days.

“Because of the pressure of taking the bodies coming in, we can’t keep them for two weeks because they’d pile up. So, we need them to be going out as quick as possible.”

Heavy demands are made and it’s felt by everyone in the business.

“It’s not only us who are inundated. Every other funeral parlour is. The cemeteries are inundated. Sometimes we get there and graves haven’t been dug. The TLB is still working. Sometimes, we get there, there’re not enough graves. So, everyone is inundated.”

Additional staffers are already required. Some are multi-tasking.

Dlodlo says, “Before, I’d relax knowing that my position is driving, but now with the pressure of the COVID-19 I have to come and help prepare the bodies.”

It is an emotionally taxing task of managing your own fears and consoling grieving relatives.

“It’s difficult to cope, because you are not sure if you’re gonna contract it or not. You have got families that you need to comfort. It’s very difficult to focus on your stress alone,” says Tshepo Maluleke, who is the Blackwood and Black Phoenix Funeral Parlour driver.

Inner City Funeral Directors Association Nkosi Nare says they are operating under distress. “We are actually operating under distress. So, we are worried about the safety of our workers because that comes first.”

But a job that has to be done straddling the up and down side of it.

“Contrary to what people believe about the funeral industry, that we are happy when there is death, it’s a painful process. It’s as painful for the families. So, we’re not happy to say this is our time to shine. We’re pushing that people stay at home, stay safe and let’s reduce the number of deaths. Let’s flatten the curve,” says Dlodlo.