Unclaimed bodies in no-man’s land

20 March 2017 | Police

JANA-MARI SMITH

Dozens of unclaimed bodies remain piled up at the Windhoek police morgue while several authorities deny responsibility for the cost of their disposal.

A meeting was reportedly held last year at which, according to the director of the National Forensic Science Institute, it was decided that the health ministry, with the assistance of local authorities, was responsible.

Yet the ministry denied responsibility last week, while the Windhoek municipality said its involvement was limited to the provision of facilities, not the logistics or costs of cremation or burial.

In a written response to Namibian Sun’s queries last year, which was reconfirmed last week, health permanent secretary Andreas Mwoombola said: “Where resources allow, the ministry may assist the police in the Khomas Region to dispose of their unclaimed bodies, however this does not make it a responsibility of the health ministry.”

The ministry, he said, was only responsible for unclaimed bodies from public health facilities and had allocated a portion of the Windhoek mortuary to the police “for storing their bodies”.

Mwoombola said the ministry had one responsibility towards the police and that was to provide doctors for conducting post-mortems.

Late last year, the Ministry of Health and Social Services agreed to cremate 76 of the unclaimed bodies after media reports on the crisis at the over-full morgue.

At the time, it was reported that 170 unclaimed bodies, some dating back to 2009, were being stored there, far exceeding the morgue’s capacity of 30 bodies.

To date, the 76 bodies the health ministry agreed to cremate remain in the morgue. Recent television reports stated that there were 128 bodies in the mortuary.

Dr Paul Ludik, head of the National Forensic Science Institute, last week said that in terms of the Public Health Act of 1919, section 35, sub-section 2, the responsibility for such burials lay with the local authority or, when there was no local authority, with the relevant government ministry, which he said was the health ministry.

Ludik said it was agreed at last year’s meeting that it was not the police’s responsibility to dispose of unclaimed bodies.

He explained that the responsibility of the police was purely to conduct an autopsy and to issue a directive to the next of kin that the body was ready for collection. He said the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration was responsible for the issuing of death certificates.

“After that, the rest lies with the ministry of health,” he said.

He said a follow-up meeting was scheduled to take place soon to “iron out practicalities” but he could not confirm the date.

Ludik insisted that there was no confusion about the matter, and that unclaimed bodies were the responsibility of the health ministry and the municipality.

He said minor progress had been made, in the sense that the health ministry had begun talks with the crematorium run by the Windhoek municipality.

The municipality last week confirmed that it had been approached by the ministry about the use of the municipal crematorium and cemeteries.

City spokesperson Lydia Amutenya said, however, that the ministry had yet to revert on the way forward and no further details had been confirmed.

Lawyer Norman Tjombe informed Namibian Sun on Friday that in terms of the Public Health Act of 1919 the responsibility for the burial of unclaimed bodies used to rest with the local authority.

However, that act has been replaced by the Public and Environmental Health Act of 2015, which only refers to the burial of human remains of persons who have died of notifiable infectious diseases. That responsibility still rests with the local authority.

Tjombe said in his opinion local authorities were responsible for burying or cremating people who died of causes other than notifiable infectious diseases too, since they were in charge of cemeteries and crematoriums.

The Inspector-General of the Namibian Police, Sebastian Ndeitunga, on Friday said that he would look into the matter and clarify the issue in the coming weeks.

Ndeitunga urged families to claim the bodies, even if they could not afford funerals. He said it was vital that the next of kin contact the mortuary and give consent for the bodies to be buried or cremated.

“There is always opportunity and a possibility for them to be assisted. But to abandon their loved ones … that is a human disgrace,” the police chief said.

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