There are approximately 495 bodies that are still in freezers across Western Cape mortuaries that are yet to be identified. According to South African Police Services, the oldest body arrived in 2006, and has now been reduced to nothing but skin and bones in a freezer.

This body is located at the Salt River Forensic Pathology Service (SRFS), and had to be moved to a temperature-controlled shipping container located outside the building. There are 229 other unidentified bodies stored in containers there.

As reported by IOL, regulations dictate that these bodies should not be kept for longer than a month, but this is often not the case.

“Regulations passed recently said that we should hold a body 30 days for the longest, but it’s the prerogative of the policeman who’s investigating the case. It’s up to the investigating officer to track down the identity and family of the deceased, but this often takes a while,” said Calvin Mesane, a forensic officer. “If you look at our policemen, they are so inundated with cases, so they would rather investigate a case of theft or assault or whatever’s urgent than to look for unidentified people. So that basically ends up at the bottom of the pile all the time.”

A police officer may write a letter of request, which will allow for an extension of a further 30 days. If after the extension, no family is found for the body, the officer will have to go-ahead to process the body as a pauper.

“Once we’ve got that, it’s a couple of weeks and that body is gone. The municipality will bear the cost of that funeral,” Mesane said.

Forensic Pathology Services also keep a box of ashes, along with a death certificate aside, out of the respect for the family who may come to identify the body without knowing a burial has already taken place. The Salt River facility currently holds 602 unclaimed boxes of ashes.

“For cultural reasons we hang on to it for as long as we can,” Mesane added. “People might come back and want the remains, because they don’t believe in cremation. Africans would like a body to bury, even if it’s bones. They don’t want the ashes, really.”

The Salt River Forensic Pathology Service will move to a new state-of-the-art facility next year. The facility is currently under contruction next to the Groote Schuur Hospital, but many are concerned that is may not be large enough to accomodate the bodies that need to be housed there.

“In the new facility, they’ve made space for 360 incoming, 360 outgoing, and there’s space provided for obese bodies,” Mesane said.

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