The morgues at the city’s two main referral hospitals, Mpilo and the United Bulawayo, have fallen into disrepair, with broken refrigerators unable to maintain the required temperatures in the summer heat to prevent decomposition.
Mpilo’s mortuary has a capacity of 30 corpses, but was storing 250, piled three high on gurneys, while other bodies were lying on the floor, and more arrive each day.
Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown has prevented families from claiming bodies as funeral costs have become unaffordable.
A simple wooden casket is priced at between US$350 and US$400, a sum beyond the reach of nearly all Zimbabweans. Unemployment is calculated at 94 percent and more than half the population survives on donor food assistance.
The mortuary crisis has become so acute that on Valentine’s Day – 14 February – the Bulawayo Residents Association (BURA), together with churches, businesses, funeral parlours and the Zimbabwe Prisons Service (ZPS), conducted a pauper’s burial for 65 people whose bodies had languished in the city’s morgues for over six months.
"We applied for pauper burial status from the Department of Social Welfare so that we could ease pressure on the hospital mortuaries, as bodies were rotting, and we received support from companies, churches and the prison authorities, who enabled us to go ahead with the burials," BURA chairman Winos Dube told IRIN at the mass funeral.
"The stench emanating from the hospital mortuaries was not good, and we hope families will claim bodies of their loved ones in future and give them decent burials," Dube said.
"The sad reality is that all this is a reflection of the economic situation in the country, where people disappear after the death of a relative because they cannot afford burial costs," he said.
"Everybody understands that people are struggling to survive, and this explains the high number of people needing pauper burials, but with the support of the other people we are working with on the current pauper burials we will continue to conduct the mass pauper burials."
Prisoners as pallbearers
The prisons department provided the manpower to carry the bodies from the morgues to the vehicles waiting to transport them to Bulawayo’s Luveve cemetery, and then to the graves, dug by residents and members of church congregations.
Funeral parlours donated cash to purchase cardboard coffins, while the business community gave money for fuel and the hire of trucks and hearses.
"One of my uncles died over five months ago and has not been buried because all his children are in South Africa, and as a family we failed to locate them," said Thelma Sikhosana, 46, who attended the mass burial.
|Since we did not have any money to conduct the funeral we just left his body at the mortuary, and I just came here to see his final resting place|
"Since we did not have any money to conduct the funeral we just left his body at the mortuary, and I just came here to see his final resting place," the visibly distraught woman told IRIN.
Pauper burials used to be something of rarity in Zimbabwe, when the once flourishing economy either allowed people to prepare for the rituals of death by investing in funeral policies, or contributions by relatives provided often lavish send-offs for the deceased.
Many of those interred in the mass burial were prisoners. In a report published late in 2008 by the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO), it was alleged that in Zimbabwe’s two largest prisons at least two inmates died each day from hunger or disease.
ZACRO said the squalid prison conditions in the country’s 55 prisons – designed for 17,000 inmates and currently holding 35,000 – created an ideal environment for the spread of diseases, such as tuberculosis, while cash shortages prevented the purchase of antiretroviral drugs to treat prisoners living with HIV/AIDS.
ZACRO said in its report that the prison services did not have sufficient funds to buy food, let alone pay for burials. The social welfare department was responsible for prisoner burials, but had ceased this function as a result of funding shortages.
According to the World Health Organisation, average life expectancy in Zimbabwe has fallen from 60 years in 1990, to 37 years for men and 34 years for women at present.