By Tauhierah Salie
With a recent international survey labeling Cape Town as one of ‘the most dangerous Cities in the world’, an unexpected death of someone we know could happen at any moment. As we know, one of the most important aspects that need to be properly conducted is a dignified burial service.
Given an increase in gang related murders and crime occurring every day, the mortuary services in Cape Town have become overwhelmed. The Western cape Muslim undertakers Forum recently highlighted the issue after releasing a statement to the public.
The Western Cape Health Departments’ Mark van De Heever, explained when an autopsy is needed. He noted that there are two types that get referred to the mortuary,
“You get natural causes and unnatural causes. Now those of natural death such as heart attacks, old age or someone with a history of illness, those are certified as natural cause of death by a medical practitioner. Those don’t require an autopsy.”
“However, unnatural deaths are usually your car accidents, stab or gunshot wounds, physical or chemical injure, suicide- anything that’s suspicious- that’s gets sent to our mortuary for an autopsy.”
The spokesperson explained what the mortuary the process involves. mark Autopsy process:
“The South African Police Service (SAPS) is usually first on scene, they will do the investigation and contact Emergency Medical Services, then the person will be certified as dead. They will then call forensic pathology services to remove the body and take the body to one of our mortuaries.”
Van de Heever explains what happens once the body gets to the mortuary:
“The pathologist will do two kind of examinations- one is external where they will remove the cloths and inspect it and check the outer physical body for any type of injury. They might also send it for cans or x-rays just to rule out any form of injury.”
“The internal examination is to inspect the internal organs of the body, to see if there’s any disease that could assist them in determining the cause of death. This could also include toxicology analysis for any sort of chemical or alcohol related death- or any abnormalities.”
“Once they are done and have concluded the cause of death, they will then notify SAPS. SAPS will notify the family and once the body is positively identified by the family it will be released to the family for the necessary burial arrangements.”
He noted that unnatural deaths are a legal matter.
“It is important to note that when it is referred for an autopsy by SAPS, or any unnatural death, the pathology lab does not require consent from family members or next of kin because it is required by law.”
In the statement, the undertaker’s forums chairperson Ebrahim Soloman warned the public of undertakers that are allegedly conning bereaved family members.
“What is happening now us that the undertaker approaches the family and tells them they can get the body, say, tomorrow morning. Then another undertaker comes along and says “no, I can get the body for you (earlier)”. The family then takes the release paper and gives it to him.”
“The undertaker, knowing full well he won’t be able to get the body earlier, then gives the family a story when they get to the mortuary that the body will only be released at 11.30 or whatever time.”
“There are so many unscrupulous undertakers. If it is said the body will be released on a particular day, it WILL be released on that day. And people must be there early because there is a cue.”
Van de Heever said the number of days families will wait various, but the Muslim community has been afforded priority due to our religious practices
“From the date of admission to the lab and the date of discharge, depending on the circumstances around it, we run on anything between 2-3 days or 3-5 days. If there are toxicology tests outstanding that delays the release as well. So, it varies, from case to case, but if there is a clear-cut case and if there are certain religious or cultural beliefs attached then we prioritize those cases. We respect religions and cultures, so we prioritize them so that we get those cases out quicker than the normal cases.”
Van de Heever admitted that the mortuaries are under pressure as there has been an increase in violent crime.
“Tygerberg and Salt river are our two big mortuaries in the province and its no secret, there is an influx of bodies as a result of violent crimes. By violent crimes I’m not just referring to gang related I’m also referring to domestic violence- which we have seen an increase in our cases that have been admitted.”
“For the last few months we’ve seen anything between 300 and 350 admitted to our two big labs within the metro- mainly due to deaths as a result of gunshot wounds or stab wounds. That has been the trend for the last few months, there is a substantial increase. We can ascribe this to societal issues we face. For example, in the first weekend of June, we admitted 77 cases, just the first weekend.”
“That said, that two facilities, even though they are stretched to the very limit, they are not running at a backlog.”
“For the past couple of months Salt River has admitted 78 cases per month and release 78. Tygerberg has admitted 90 cases and released 87. So, it gives you a picture, they are very busy but whatever they get in they try to push out on a weekly basis as well.”
He noted that the Department fulfilled a commitment made last year, to increase the number of staffs.
“Last year we made a commitment that we will employ additional staff to assist with the pressure that those two facilities experiences. We admitted something like seven Pathologists and assistants for each of them, forensic pathology officers, there were also registrars and two medical officers. All those posts have been filled. We invested in those additional resources which is why we are in this position where we are able to just cope with the enormous pressure.”
Soloman noted that families need to ensure that they identify the bodies as soon as possible and take note of opening times.
“Once the body gets to the mortuary they have to go and identify the body, as soon as possible. Because the bodies are only released at salt River Mortuary from 11h30 onwards and at Tygerberg mortuary from 13h30 onward, the family is responsible for getting an undertaker there arly enough to go and release the body. Other than that, if they know the body is at the mortuary, they can book the hole, they can do all the preparations beforehand.”
Van de heaver echoed the sentiment saying families can assist by responding to calls quickly and ensure they have the correct documents.
“To the public, they can assist in the more speed release of bodies by responding quickly. When we contact next of kin or family members to come and identify a body, the sooner they get to us- the sooner the process can come to a conclusion. So, if they can get to us when we call them then the process can get concluded in its entirety and this is on all faiths and religions.”
“When undertakers call them, they can also work through the undertaker as soon as possible, make sure they have the necessary documentation when they come for identification which is an ID card/book or medical records- which will also assist the pathologist in terms of determining the cause of death.”
The spokesperson highlighted that the cost is covered, except if the family wants extra tests done.
“The autopsy cost is covered by the state, meaning SAPS and the health department. However, if there are any additional DNA testing required or any other types of identification other than visible identification which is obtainable within our laboratory, then that cost is usually led by the family. If they dispute any of the results that the laboratory finds, and they want to send it for a second opinion that’s down to the family. “
He noted that families can also query the progress of cases.
“If the family has any queries when the body is admitted to one of the forensic labs, they would then be given contact details and they can stay in regular contact with the facility to check on the progress of the case.”
Meanwhile, a new mortuary, which is being built at a complex in Observatory, may assist with the Mother City’s soaring murder rate.
The R280m facility is expected to be double the size of the existing one in Salt River and is may be completed by next year.
Head of the Western Cape’s forensic pathology service, Lorna Martin, is reported to have said the high murder rate puts added pressure on the pathology staff.
Van de Heever said, given the situation in Cape Town, the health department urges all departments to work together tom reduce the rate of violent crime.
“It’s a whole society issue this. We as the health department, can’t predict what comes into the mortuary. That’s why we work with various NGO’s and government organizations to see how we can, get the community to support to alleviate the pressure that not just our labs experience, but also in our hospitals.”
“There’s the same service pressure there, as a result of the number of cases that are brought in that have been stabbed or shot and it has a ripple effect on the entire system. We are working with various sectors, The issue is bigger than just the health department and we can only rely on other department to support us to do their part and play their role to assist our society in terms of changing their behavior to reduce the number of deaths as a result of violent crimes.