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Grave Diggers: The Forgotten COVID-19 Frontline Workers

Sounds of hymns from mourners give life to an eerily quiet Zororo Memorial Park Cemetery as families and friends bid last farewell to their loved ones who succumbed to the deadly COVID-19 that is currently taking toll on the world.

The influx of bodies, almost triple pre-coronavirus levels with cemetery workers and gravediggers saying they no longer feel any pity for families who are burying their loved ones.

The little remorse they had has all but been exhausted.

“If I involve my emotions, then I wouldn’t be able to do it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care,” says one grave digger, Munyaradzi (not real name).

“We are people that care,” he adds, “and we are going to do the right thing for everybody who comes into these gates, whether they died from the virus or not.”

Undertakers carryout a COVID-19 burial at Zororo Memorial Park Cemetery. (Lovejoy Mutongwiza/263Chat)

To Munyaradzi and his workmates, death has become normal due to the increased number of burials they witness everyday.

“If we don’t get 15 Covid-19 burials per day, we actually get surprised.”

He says the days are long and physically grueling, but the emotional toll of seeing families unable to give loved ones a proper farewell is especially draining, only that they are used to it.

Instead of being sorrowful, he and several others, are finding comfort in seeing a number of people on a daily basis.

“This is a lonely place, it is usually eerie, you wouldn’t want to spend a day at this place but since COVID-19 hit, we have been meeting new people daily. It’s sad seeing them grieving but for us, we have found solace in that.

“We now have people whom we can talk to, probably make friends with. It’s a bitter-sweet scenario,” Munyaradzi says, as he digs his third grave of the day.

On this fateful Thursday afternoon, 18 bodies of people who succumbed to COVID-19 were laid to rest.

That’s 18 grieving families Munyaradzi and crew had to watch because of COVID-19. These families have to grieve and mourn from a distance.

At Zororo Memorial Park Cemetery, mourners are required to stay in their cars or stand at a distance during burial services, which Munyaradzi says has led to heartbreaking encounters, with family members beckoning him to car windows and asking if he would place things like flowers or a cross near their loved ones’ graves.

At Zororo Memorial Park Cemetery, mourners are required to stay in their cars or stand at a distance during burial services. (Lovejoy Mutongwiza/263Chat)

The disease has fuelled an exponential increase in the average number of deaths per day, placing an unprecedented strain on morgues, funeral homes, coffin manufacturers and cemeteries.

The challenges and dangers that the pandemic has thrust upon front-line medical workers have been well documented.

Even as emergency services and health care workers keep the focus on survival through a global pandemic, it is also necessary that those who do not make it get a dignified farewell, and this is the responsibility of gravediggers, who often go unnoticed and only surface when the “dirty work” has to be done.

Digging a grave is not a dark and sinister job, but rather an act of respect for the dead. Usually, gravediggers don’t know anything about the deceased and they have little or no personal contact with the family. That makes the job easier.

“To be a gravedigger, you must be comfortable with death and with what you are doing for a living. As long as you are a positive person that celebrates life, you won’t have any problems.

“That is why we have become so accustomed to several burials in a day. It does not mean I’m a stone-cold person, I do have emotions but it is what it is” says Munyaradzi.

The disease has fuelled an exponential increase in the average number of deaths per day, placing an unprecedented strain on morgues, funeral homes, coffin manufacturers and cemeteries (Lovejoy Mutongwiza/263Chat)

In the face of isolation and restricted access, undertakers and cemetery workers have had to adapt to the situation and often step in for families.

“We would be bored here, we used to have about seven to 10 burials per day and that would be ok. But since the number of deaths has gone up, we are seeing no less than 18 to 25 burials of COVID-19 deaths alone in a single day. And those mourners feel helpless when they stand at a distance.

“Under normal circumstances, they would be surrounding the grave of their loved one but there is nothing like that now. Even our emotions are no longer normal.

“For them, it’s unusual to lose their loved one, for us it is just another busy day at work where we are expecting to meet new people, help them with whatever they need and the cycle continues,” Munyaradzi adds.

This reporter witnessed three burials. The saddest is that of two sets of remains, a husband and wife, who both died from COVID-19, apparently within hours of each other.

The other burial was of a young woman whose family had laid to rest her sister, 48 hours earlier. Sad!

Munyaradzi says the start of the year is the least busy time of the year, but considering the country’s current state, he and other grave diggers are bracing themselves for more burials.

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