There are 495 bodies lying in freezers across the Western Cape, waiting for somebody to identify them. The bodies are unknown and unclaimed.
The oldest body at Salt River Forensic Pathology Service (FPS) is 13 years old. It arrived in 2006 and is now just desiccated remains of skin and bone. The body is packed in a temperature-controlled shipping container outside the building, along with 229 other unidentified bodies.
Forensic officer, Calvin Mesane said regulations do not permit for bodies to stay longer than a month, however this is not the case as bodies often stay far longer.
“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.
Mesane added that the investigating police officer can write a letter requesting an extension of another 30 days, however if no family is found after investigation, the officer will give the go-ahead for the body to be processed as a pauper.
“Once we’ve got that, it’s a couple of weeks and that body is gone. The municipality will bear the cost of that funeral,” he said.
The FPS still keep a box of ashes and a death certificate for family who may turn up.
At the present moment there are 602 unclaimed boxes of ashes at the Salt River facility alone, some dating back to 2012.
Despite the fact that the small boxes of ashes are easier to store, the unknown bodies are stored as is in the freezers for various cultural reasons.
The Salt River FPS is expected to move to a new facility next to Groote Schuur Hospital, however, there are concerns that the facility will not be big enough for all the bodies.
“In the new facility, they’ve made space for 360 incoming, 360 outgoing, and there’s space provided for obese bodies,” Mesane said.
FPS spokesperson Deanna Bessick said the oldest remains in storage were there because they were awaiting further testing.
“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.”