Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Undertakers: the forgotten Covid-19 frontline warriors

By Mashudu Netsianda

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc globally, undertakers — arguably the most unheralded heroes in the fight against the killer virus — valiantly report for duty with probably the highest risk of infection among frontliners.

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File picture of undertakers loading a coffin into a hearse (Picture by AP)

In all the panic following Covid-19 related deaths, the morticians and undertakers are completely forgotten.
The treatment of bodies of people who die from the deadly virus is more stringent than that of the living.

According to a recent Government circular, there are seven requirements:
* The Police will only clear body movements for burial straight from a funeral parlour or hospital mortuary to the burial site
* No body viewing will be allowed
* Bodies will not be taken home
* The public is urged to keep a distance of 4 metres as the body is lowered into the grave by either city health of funeral parlour officials
* The gravesite will be disinfected before and after the burial
* Gatherings at funerals have been reduced to strictly 30 people
* For those who want to transport the body for burial outside the city or town of death, they should ensure that the body is hermetically sealed in a triple coffin before collection of body from the funeral parlour or hospital mortuary
The rule for the living includes staying at home and only going out for emergencies, social distancing of about 2 metres, wearing masks in public, continuous sanitisation and washing of hands. It can be argued that undertakers have got the short end of the stick.

While healthcare workers and emergency services primarily focus on saving lives, it is also necessary that those who do not make it, get a dignified farewell.

Funeral undertakers or morticians play a critical role in filling that gap.

A mortician prepares deceased people for wakes, funerals and interment by embalming, dressing, cosmetically enhancing and casketing them.

The undertaking industry has of late been forced to change the way they conduct funerals and handle bodies due to Covid-19.

In the face of isolation and restricted access, undertakers had to adapt to the situation and often step in for families.

A Chronicle new crew spoke to selected undertakers in the city to share their personal experiences and the risks associated with their jobs in the wake of Covid-19.

Mr Graig Mutirasa (26), a father of two girls, started his career in undertaking in 2019 after he was inspired by a friend. He formally started employment at Exodus Funeral Parlour soon after completing an in-house six weeks course.

“I started as a student in 2019 after a friend inspired me. Upon completing my course, my superiors were impressed with my performance and they immediately employed me,” he said.

Mr Mutirasa both embodies and defies the stereotypes often associated with morticians.

“The most beautiful thing about my job is taking the loved one into my care from a removal, especially when the family is gathered. It’s an absolute honour to be in the worst possible moment in someone’s life,” he said.

“As a mortician, I do body wash, dressing as well as embalming bodies for a living. Before Covid-19 everything was going on smoothly, but now our way of doing things has changed. We now have to adhere to strict rules and regulations when it comes to body removals and handling bodies.”

Mr Mutirasa said if a body is suspected to be that of a Covid-19 victim, an undertaker is required to put it in a body bag when doing removals from hospital.

“We are supposed to wear a full protective kit, which includes a jacket or jumpsuit, gloves and a facemask. We put the body in a bag and place it in a stretcher bed and then take it to our mortuary and we are not allowed to open it,” he said.

“The body is not supposed to stay for more than two days in the mortuary. We no longer wash the body, we just put it in the coffin and it will be inside its bag and there is no body viewing.”

Before the body is taken to the cemetery, Mr Mutirasa said they have to first notify a Covid-19 response team from the Bulawayo City Council to come and disinfect it. Before and after the burial, all tools including undertakers’ clothes are also disinfected.

“It is also important to always adhere to the health regulations, that is washing your hands regularly, wearing masks and maintain social distancing.” said Mutirasa.

He said under normal circumstances, they do a body wash, embalment, dressing and body viewing is also allowed.

In light of the Covid-19 outbreak, all bodies are being treated as Covid-19 contaminated and should be buried within 24 hours. Funeral parlours are also required to remove bodies from homes under guidelines from the Ministry of Health and Child Care.

Government recently announced that the repatriation of Zimbabweans for burial will continue, but under the seven strict health protocols.

Mr Grant Matamawi is a veteran undertaker who has seen it all in the industry. He started off as a driver at Exodus Funeral Parlour in 2005 and trained to be a mortician while working there.

His day-to-day work includes retrieving bodies, preparing them for burial and directing funerals.

“It is not easy to handle bodies and as morticians we come across different types of bodies, some of which would be decomposed. We are more prone to contracting the coronavirus hence the need for proper safety precautions. These precautions should be part of regular practices for every undertaker to avoid such health issues,” he said.

Ultimately, it is not the method of end-of or after-life care that concerns men like Mr Matamawi, but rather the instinct to talk about death in a meaningful way.

“We don’t just deal with bodies; we also deal with the grieving families as well. Before Covid-19, we would personally meet the families, console them and guide them through the tough time. This, however, stopped as undertakers now have to follow strict Covid-19 health regulations,” said Mr Matamawi.

Besides overseeing the preparation and care of the remains of people who have died, undertakers also offer counselling and comfort to bereaved families and friends.

“People assume that dealing with bodies on a daily basis must be the most difficult part of our profession. We do the job that other people can’t or won’t do, which means our service is valuable to the community. We are not only dealing with bodies, which is beyond being frightening to most people, it can also be host to all kinds of diseases, particularly the deadly Covid-19.”

Mr Matamawi works with the dead on a daily basis and part of what he loves most is embalming.

Embalming is a technique used to preserve the deceased by replacing a portion of their blood with chemicals (including formaldehyde). The body is also made up to look as it did in life — lipstick and all.

At the end of every rigorous day, where infection can occur at any stage, morticians have to ensure they are Covid-19 free when they return to their families. The Chronicle

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