- The Salt River Forensic Pathology Service is struggling with a huge backlog of unidentified bodies
- One body has been kept in storage for 13 years
- A number of challenges face the facility, the greatest being the slow processing times
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Hundreds of bodies are waiting to be identified in the Western Cape, one particular body has been in storage for 13 years.
The unclaimed body is nothing more than desiccated skin and bone. It is being kept in a chilled storage container outside the building of the Salt River Forensic Pathology Service (FPS).
Regulations state that a body should not be kept for longer than 30 days but in reality, the bodies end up being kept for much longer.
"That container is quite full currently with unknown bodies,” said forensic officer Calvin Mesane.
He was referring to a container holding 229 unknown bodies.
“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.
“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,” Mesane said.
In order to keep the body longer, an officer can write a letter asking for an extension of a further 30 days. If no one comes forward to collect the body or the relatives cannot be found the body would get processed as a pauper.
The municipality carries the cost of the funeral in that case. If family members or loved ones do come to collect the remains (ash) are kept along with a death certificate.
“For cultural reasons we hang on to it for as long as we can,” Mesane said. “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 FPS will be relocating to a new state-of-the-art facility near Groote Schuur Hospital but there is a risk that there will not be enough space.
The greatest challenge to solving the backlog is the processing system which needs to be streamlined to keep up with the demand. FPS spokeswoman Deanna Bessick said that the reason the bodies are kept in storage for so long is that they are awaiting tests.
“The few cases that have been with us since 2016 and 2017 are because they are skeletons (or even just a bone) and have been retained for more specific testing such as forensic anthropology and facial reconstruction by the SAPS forensic science lab in Pretoria,” she said. “As they take little space, there is no rush to dispose of such.”
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