It is just after 4am and flickering lights add to the eeriness of Chitungwiza’s New Nyatsime Cemetery.
There is no body viewing. No church service and no flowers for the graves.
It will be a wonder if any of these graves will ever have a tombstone, or a visitor to mourn over the life that once was.
The flickering lights are not ghosts.
These are the torches of the pallbearers and grave diggers who are doing the thankless job of conducting paupers’ burials.
Before us lie the bodies of 17 people – 14 males and three females – who died at Chitungwiza Centra Hospital and whose remains were unclaimed or unidentified for long periods by either family or friends of the deceased.
Doves Funeral Services – as part of its corporate social responsibility programme – has provided the resources to bury these unclaimed souls.
The coffins are lowered into the ground solemnly albeit without ceremony.
One pallbearer can’t accept that a life can be extinguished without so much as a tear, and offers up a small prayer: “O Lord grant them eternal rest, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
With the last shovel full of earth tossed, equipment is packed and some sort of marking is made on the graves for administrative purposes as per the burial orders.
In less than two hours, 17 people have been interred.
There families may never know, or care to know, where they are buried. Life goes on.
Chitungwiza Central Hospital mortician Mr Ignatius Chatima says they do the paupers’ burials at such odd hours so as not to upset the sensitivities of the local community.
“As you can see, the bodies are already in a decomposing state and we don’t want to disturb the peace of the community,” he says.
The pallbearers have their own explanation for the timing. They believe that burying someone whom one is not related to in the wee hours prevents the spirit of the departed from haunting them.
Traditionalist Sekuru Jonathan Mupamombe, however, says: “It is very rare that the spirit of a deceased person whom you are not related to follows you if you don’t have a hand in their death.”
In Charles Dickens’ England, pauper burials were seen as the ultimate indignity.
But a number of reasons motivate such endings, ranging from funeral costs to disintegrated families.
Chitungwiza Hospital operations director Mr Tapiwa Machiridza explains: “Some are simply destitutes such that when they are admitted to hospital, not even one single person comes for a visit.
“Some are road traffic accident victims who won’t be having any form of identification on them.
“We also have situations whereby people use false names, some give false addresses for fear of follow up for medical bills.
“In some instances relatives of the deceased refuse to take responsibility and some people shy away from footing funeral expenses.”
Of the 17 paupers we see being buried, only one – Proud Mupambwa – was identified. Mupambwa committed suicide while in police custody.
Mr Machiridza says the majority of those given paupers’ burials were from the surrounding farming areas of Beatrice and Seke, and Bumhudzo Old People’s Home.
Three of the bodies had been in the mortuary since 2014.
The processes leading to pauper burials are a bit complex.
According to standard procedure, when a person dies without any form of identification, the hospital is required by law to carry out a post-mortem to ascertain the cause of death.
In the event that no-one claims the body, the hospital will make a public announcement and hope that someone comes forward to claim the deceased.
When no one comes, the police issue clearance for the hospital to bury the unclaimed body.
Burials orders are sourced from the Registrar-General’s Office, and the Social Welfare Department invites tenders for the burials.
The hospital often then asks the local authority for free graves.
Although the Social Welfare Department normally takes up the responsibility of burying paupers, Doves Funeral Services volunteered to fund the burial costs for 17 recently interred at Manyame Cemetery.
Doves provided the coffins, transport, detergents and protective clothing among other sundries.
Ms Nerina Mahachi, the Doves regional manager (northern region), said, “We carry out these pauper burials as part of our corporate social responsibility programme.
“We have conducted many such burials as part of giving back to the community.
“Despite providing our services for free, we experience some challenges because of resistance from officials from the Registrar-General’s Office who insist that the burials can be conducted only after the issuance of burial orders.
“Such documents may take long to process resulting in delays.”
Chitungwiza Central Hospital is asking others to emulate Doves.
Mr Machiridza says, “There is challenge of storage. Our mortuary accommodates only 40 bodies. Keeping 17 corpses in our mortuary compromises us as a hospital.
“Staff working at the mortuary are exposed to infections due to gases produced by bodies if they stay for long, and the odour produced by dead bodies makes the environment unpleasant and unfavourable.”
Mr Machiridza adds that due to their shoe-string budget, placing advertisements in the electronic and print media for people to come forward and identify bodies is a major challenge.
Chitungwiza Hospital used to conduct paupers’ burials every three months but has reduced these to twice yearly.
Being a spiritual people, some believe that relatives will eventually find the burial places of their dear departed.
Sekuru Mupamombe says, “In some cases, the deceased alerts his family of where he is buried and instructs them, through a spirit medium or dreams, to be reburied elsewhere.
“Unemployment, sickness, marriage problems and even death can be inflicted to the family of the deceased as a way of arm-twisting them to address the issue.”
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