Covid deaths overwhelm funeral service providers

A hearse leaves Uganda Funeral Services funeral home in Bukoto yesterday. PHOTOs/STEPHEN OTAGE

What you need to know:

Managers of funeral service companies say they are working overtime to keep up with the demand.

Ever since the government announced that Uganda was experiencing the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic early this year, the number of infections has been increasing. As a result the number of deaths also increased.

This has not only taken a toll on the health workers and medical facilities but other related businesses such as the funeral services.

Managers of funeral service companies say they are overwhelmed by the number of deaths, many of which are Covid-19 related.

At Funeral Supplies Uganda, Ms Ashaba Kanya, the director, barely had time to speak to us.

When we arrived at the office for an interview, she was speaking to someone on the phone.

As soon as the interview started, she received a phone call but decided to mute it.

Shortly after this she received another call and asked to pause the interview so that she would talk to the client.

The person calling her had just lost a relative and was desperately looking for services.

“Oh sorry,” she said to the caller, “Is it Covid?”

 The caller appeared to have confirmed that it was Covid-19.

When she finished the call, she rang one of her staff and told the person not to return to office, but to connect to a village in western Uganda to help out.

 “At night, we get a lot of phone calls coming in from here and upcountry branches. The situation isn’t good,” she said.

The situation at Funeral Supplies Uganda isn’t different from other funeral services companies.

Although none wants to share statistics about the number of cases they handle daily due to tax and competition issues, each of these companies were handling, on average, between three to five burials a day.

Each of these companies is estimated to be receiving between 10 and 30 bodies a day, of which 80 per cent are suspected to have died of Covid-19.

The funeral service bills have also doubled from Shs2m to Shs4m before the coronavirus pandemic to Shs7m and beyond.

Ministry of Health statistics show that 508 people have died of Covid-19 since July last year although some people have disputed the numbers saying many more deaths have occured in private medical centres and at homes that go uncounted.

The deputy manager of Rhino Funeral Services, Mr Mike Ssebbanja, said the situation is so bad that they have started declining taking some jobs.

“The reality is that people are dying. You can be in the office and people call every time and you even think of switching off your phone. Around 30 people called me to pick their bodies in just one hour,” Mr Ssebbanja said.

He added that funeral service companies have reached a level of looking for more hearses from their competitors to clear the backlog.

But all companies are unwilling to help out since they also have the same challenges.

Mr Joseph Nsubuga, the general manager of Uganda Funeral Services, said: “This is extreme. We have never had a kind of situation like this. …Covid has gone to this extreme.”

He added: “We work 24 hours. We get calls throughout the day and night. We now have to schedule the grieving families to bury their loved ones.”

Mr Nsubuga said they have increased their fleet, but fear that their workers will break down since they do not get enough rest due to the many trips they make daily.

Mr Zedi Bayitawo, the chief executive officer of A Plus Funeral Management, was too busy to spare time for us.

“I am so busy. I was in Sironko [District] when you called me. I am now engaged with clients. We are all in the field,” Mr Bayitawo said on phone after four days of rescheduling an interview.

Coffin sellers near Mulago National Referral Hospital have also seen an increase in the demand for their products.

Ms Aisha Namugenyi, who sells coffins, said she is selling between 10 and 12 coffins per day since the second Covid-19 wave. She said before the pandemic, she sold three a day.

“Even the price of coffins has increased. The carpenters are not supplying enough coffins and those made from imported products are pricey,” Ms Namugenyi said.

A coffin that was sold at Shs350,000 six months ago, is now at Shs450,000.

The price of coffins for averagely rich people has jumped from a range of Shs800,000-Shs1.5m to Shs1.5m-Shs2.5m.

Traders said getting coffin materials has also become hard.

Ms Harriet Babirye, a coffin carpenter, said they sell more than 10 coffins these days.

“You can hardly find expensive caskets. They were sold out,” Ms Babirye said. “I used to work on three coffins a day, but now I work on 10 and also hire children to help me out.”

Coffin price changes

6 months ago                     








Funeral service bill

6 months ago                     








Funeral service prices are also determined by the distance from the mortuary to the burial site, type of casket and days spent managing the body.