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Zimbabweans can't bury their dead

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By Stanley Karombo

BODIES are piling up in Harare's mortuaries, because relatives of the dead refuse to claim them. Most of these relatives cannot afford the cost of a funeral.

While the city council has been giving paupers' burials to the unclaimed bodies, it is now running out of burial space.

Beauty Moyo, one of those unable to afford a decent burial for her relative, breaks down, sobbing, in a deserted corridor of Harare's main Parirenyatwa hospital. Her sister died two months ago.

Adjusting her hat, Moyo glances at the floor and, barely audibly, explains she's not mourning her beloved sibling's death as much as she's mourning her family's inability to give her ''a decent burial''.

Moyo lives in Glenview, a poor suburb of Harare. Despite her family's desire to lay her sister to rest in peace -- they simply cannot afford it, she says.

When asked if she had seen the adverts in the state-controlled newspaper The Herald, urging people to come forward and claim bodies of relatives at mortuaries, she nodded in the affirmative.

The family has decided that her sister will receive a pauper's funeral, Moyo says.

Elsewhere, at Harare Central hospital, a distraught family hovers outside the mortuary. One of the family members, shabbily-dressed Namatai Jumbe, says her father passed away while at the hospital.

Sobbing, she explains that the surviving members of her family could not afford to pay a driver to transport their father's body to their rural home in Musana, about 30km from the capital.

''We have to go home and sell cattle, so we can raise the amount needed to transport the body,'' says Jumbe, wiping away her tears.

Hospital mortuaries all over Zimbabwe are overcrowded as increasing numbers of people fail to claim and collect the bodies of their loved ones.

''Some,'' says Harare Central Hospital's superintendent, Dr Chris Tapfumaneyi, ''are poor and abandon the bodies on purpose, hoping the city will lay their relatives to rest.

''Others are the bodies of dead vagrants, collected by police."

In a country where inflation has hit over 600%, the price of burial has also gone up.

A basic burial -- including cemetery, grave fees, a modest wooden casket and transportation -- costs about 380 US dollars.

This is more than the annual minimum wage of the majority of Zimbabweans. It is also beyond the reach of at least 70% of the country's population who are unemployed. As prices climb, so does the number of unclaimed corpses crowding mortuaries.

Parirenyatwa hospital's executive officer, Thomas Zindoga, confirms there are 66 bodies at his institution's mortuary.

While walking through its corridors, it is impossible to ignore the odour emanating from the mortuary because the cooling and refrigeration system packed up last week.

Once inside, one is greeted with the ghoulish sight of bodies stacked on top of one another. Apart from the sight of infants' corpses, there are lifeless figures covered by either canvas or cotton sheets. Some have been placed on stalls, others lie on the floor. Rural residents are fortunate; they bury their dead on family plots, according to their traditions.

Unfortunately, city dwellers have no such luxury. The HIV/Aids death toll is increasing the demand for graves. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that as many as 3 000 people die in Zimbabwe of Aids-related illnesses every week.

While this increases the need for burial space, there is no matching supply; the capital's cemeteries are already overcrowded.

Phillip Mataranyika, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Association of Funeral Assurers, describes the lack of burial space as 'desperate', urging city officials to allocate more land. But the municipality spokesperson, Leslie Gwindi, declined to comment.

Mataranyika predicts more families may consider cremation, despite their preferring a conventional burial. In June, the cash-strapped council ran out of the imported inflammable gas used at its only crematorium.

An undertaker in Harare, who asked not to be named, says private funeral homes in the city are storing at least 100 bodies, all due for cremation.

A dozen have been transported to the second city, Bulawayo, which has a diesel-fired crematorium. But diesel fuel -- like regular petrol -- is also scarce.

A leader of Harare's Hindu community, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says they may waive strict religious rules to allow non-Hindus to be cremated in their small diesel-fired crematorium.

This may offer some Zimbabweans, like the Moyo and Jumbe families, an alternative -- if not ideal means -- to bid farewell to their loved ones. - Sapa-IPS

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