‘A nightmare’: Virus upsets South African funeral rites

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people and mourning concept - woman with red roses and coffin at funeral in church

Undertakers clad in canary-yellow protective suits lowered the coffin into the cold soil as a mechanical digger waited nearby to smother the grave.

Still numbed by their loss, a family watched the desolate spectacle from metres (yards) away.

They were barred from tossing a handful of soil or a flower into the grave, and could not even huddle together.

Modise Motlhabane was still in his early 40s when he became the latest of South Africa’s mounting fatalities from coronavirus.

The ceremony to bid him farewell at Johannesburg’s Westpark cemetery lasted less than 30 minutes: these days, funerals are fast-tracked.

Under new regulations, mourners have a maximum of two hours to collect the body and bury it to avoid congestion at graveyards and limit the spread of Covid-19.

The change has been deeply traumatic in South Africa, where family honour, dignity and the instinct to renew human bonds make funerals long and elaborate affairs.

The time between death and burial is traditionally a week or more, so that mourners can travel from different parts of the country or from abroad, to come and collectively grieve.

Today, the remains of a coronavirus victim are interred within three days — and disposal is swift, clinical and mindful of social distancing.

“It was too quick,” said Charles Motlhabane, 32, after the burial of his older brother.

Organising the funeral was “a nightmare,” he said.

“We’re used to having like a whole week of preparations and calling family members.

“But now things are different — you can’t even get close to the casket to view it going down. So it’s a mess, this thing, it’s just a huge mess.”

On the way to the cemetery, the hearse drove briefly by the family home in Soweto.

It parked on a narrow street while mourners gathered from metres away, and a priest shouted out a prayer. The vigil lasted just 10 minutes before the hearse moved on.