ZIMBABWE: No rest for the dead

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

As Zimbabwe's economic crisis deepens, the daily struggle to make ends meet often takes priority over providing loved ones with a decent burial and morgues are being filled beyond capacity.

Mortuaries, plagued by power failures, failing refrigerators and lack of chemicals to operate properly, have to keep corpses for extended periods of time while relatives try to scrape together what they can to bid the deceased a final farewell. Many relatives never return and, after nine months, abandoned corpses are given pauper burials by the state.

"The situation is desperate; we have seen people disappear immediately after a relative admitted in the hospital dies. This has created serious problems, as the mortuary here at Mpilo hospital [on the outskirts of Zimbabwe's second largest city, Bulawayo] cannot cope - bodies are piled on top of each other," said Ishamael Moyo, who sells cheap wooden coffins to poor desperate families just outside the mortuary.

"They stay long without being collected, while some are never collected at all," Moyo told IRIN. "The situation is terrible: refrigerators are always breaking and the mortuaries do not have chemicals to spray the decomposing bodies." According to the authorities, the mortuary was designed to hold 60 corpses but now has a daily average of 250.

Around 200 bodies are given pauper burials every year. "The number is increasing due to HIV/AIDS and the economic situation ... most people given pauper burials would have been admitted at hospitals and when they die their relatives simply disappear," said a hospital official at Mpilo, who wished to remain anonymous.

Some bodies had been unclaimed for so long that they had started decomposing. "We have bodies that have not been collected for over six months; the mortuary is overflowing with bodies as we speak," said one mortuary attendant.

Blessing Chebundo, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Health and Child Welfare, noted that "Hospitals are not coping with the huge number of deaths due to HIV/AIDS and we discovered during a nationwide tour that corpses are rotting at mortuaries due to overcrowding and for staying longer periods in mortuaries without being claimed by relatives."

He said the Department of Social Welfare now lacked the funds to conduct pauper burials on a regular basis, and that the problem was aggravated because bodies were being brought to mortuaries and left there while families tried to raise the cash to pay for funerals.

The spokesperson for the Bulawayo city council, which is in charge of city cemeteries, Phathisa Nyathi, said the city was running short of burial space. The council recently reported that burials were increasing by 20 percent each month.

"The number of deaths we have registered in the last two years has increased astronomically: in July this year the number of burials in all our cemeteries was 747, while in August the number of burials was 867 ... in previous years ... we were having between 50 and 60 burials in a single month," Nyathi said.

For the last three weeks Maureen Phiri, 46, has been shuttling from one funeral parlour to another comparing costs and policies that might suit her family's pocket. Her husband, Nhlanhla, 52, is terminally ill with cancer and the family has exhausted its savings on his medication.

"It pains me that I am already planning my husband's funeral ... [but] if I just sit and do nothing we will fail as a family to bury him when he dies, because of high funeral costs," Phiri said.

She said funeral parlours in the city charged between Z$20 million and Z$25 million (between US$40 and US$50 at the parallel market rate of Z$500,000 to US$1) for a coffin, which was too much for her teacher's salary of only Z$14 million a month (US$28).

According to the World Health Organisation, in Zimbabwe life expectancy has plummeted from 62 years in 1990 to 37 years for men and 34 years for women in 2004; both figures are thought to have dropped even further since then.

Source: IRIN