Searching for lost lives: S.Africa's unidentified corpses


Honorary Master
Mar 26, 2010
Johannesburg (AFP) - At Olifantsvlei cemetery on the outskirts of southern Johannesburg, undertakers clad in white plastic overalls, boots and face masks take on a grim task: mass pauper burials.
They are burying 46 bodies that have been lying in public morgues, unidentified and unclaimed, for up to three months.
It is a task undertaken every month -- the numbers are often higher.
The routine is a sombre reminder of South Africa's perennial failure to identify many corpses.
At the busiest mortuaries in Johannesburg, one in every 10 bodies is unidentified.
As each flimsy coffin is pulled off a refrigerated truck, one undertaker reads aloud an identity number inscribed on top while another ticks off the number on a sheet of paper to confirm it has been buried.
The only other marker on each coffin is a basic description of the body by gender and skin colour, nothing more detailed than "black adult female" or "white male adult" for example.
Without any ceremony, the coffins are hastily put into freshly-dug graves, nine-feet (three-metre) deep, with three or four stacked in each hole.
South Africa is feeling the strain from having to deal with hundreds of unidentified cadavers, with the most populous province of Gauteng reporting an average of 1,000 each year.
"It's incredibly high -- 1,000 people being unidentified in just one province," said professor Jeanine Vellema, head of forensic pathology at Johannesburg's Wits University who is also in charge of Gauteng's 11 public morgues.

- Forensic hunt for clues -
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