Municipal Johannesburg Morgue workers bury the coffin of an unidentified body on February 27, 2019 at the Olifantsvlei Cemetery in Johannesburg. - Unclaimed bodies have been lying in the mortuary , a body is usually left unidentified and unclaimed at the mortuary for only 30 days before it is given a pauper's funeral. (Photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP)

Undertakers’ grim task of burying unidentified corpses

Susan Njanji

Johannesburg – Every month undertakers take on the grim task of mass pauper burials at the Olifantsvlei cemetery on the outskirts of southern Joburg. The bodies have been lying in public morgues, unidentified and unclaimed, for up to three months.

At the busiest mortuaries in Johannesburg, one in every 10 bodies is unidentified.

  As each flimsy coffin is pulled off a refrigerated truck, one undertaker reads aloud an identity number inscribed on top, while another ticks off the number on a sheet of paper to confirm it has been buried. The only other marker on each coffin is a basic description of the body by gender and skin colour, nothing more detailed than “black adult female” or “white male adult” for example.

Without any ceremony, the coffins are hastily put into freshly-dug graves, three-metre deep, with three or four stacked in each hole.

  South Africa is feeling the strain from having to deal with hundreds of unidentified cadavers, with the most populous province of Gauteng reporting an average of 1 000 each year.

  Professor Jeanine Vellema, head of forensic pathology at Johannesburg’s Wits University, who is also in charge of Gauteng’s 11 public morgues said: “It’s incredibly high, 1 000 people being unidentified in just one province.”

  Most of the unidentified bodies at the morgues are thought to be undocumented migrants.

  Millions of African migrants pour into South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy, in search of greener pastures. “The facility with the highest percentage is Johannesburg because of the migrant and immigrant population,” said Vellema.

  A team of volunteer forensic practitioners from the Wits medical school dedicate two days a week to looking for clues to identify the bodies.

  At the largest and busiest morgue in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow area, they pull out a body from the cold room and place it on a gurney as blood drips on the floor. It is wheeled into an examination room for hours of meticulous data collection, piecing together evidence such as fingerprints, dental patterns, tattoos, tribal marks or any distinctive scars. But for undocumented foreigners, the data is hard to match with any official paperwork.

  Despite the challenges, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helps South Africa to match data with individuals reported missing from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe or Mozambique.

  Stephen Fonseca, a forensic expert with the ICRC said: “An unidentified body doesn’t really tell us anything about their origin. The authorities are overwhelmed. There is only so much space in the mortuary to hold the remains. It’s really tough for them to manage these volumes.”

“It’s a massive continent and we work with the authorities to develop very pragmatic ways to link these unidentified bodies to individual families,” said Fonseca.

  About 40 percent of the 16 or so bodies handled at the Hillbrow mortuary a month are positively identified, according to Trisha-Jean Mahon, a forensic practitioner.

  “It’s a very good success rate. When we initiated our project, we were under the impression that we would probably get none,” said Mahon.

  Scientists are also examining ways to distinguish where people come from through chemical “signatures” found in a corpse, possibly linking them to food, drink or air from a specific location. AFP

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