7 Oct 2013

Call for help with funeral costs in Papua New Guinea cities

5:58 pm on 7 October 2013

As the authorities in Papua New Guinea's two main cities prepare for another round of mass burials, people are reported to be struggling to find the money to bury their relatives.

Stigma around infection with HIV/AIDS is still strong in PNG and people frequently abandon sick relatives and the bodies of those who die.

But that isn't the only reason city morgues are constantly crowded, as Annell Husband found out.

A shower of rocks from a mechanical shovel - the end that awaits many of those infected with HIV/AIDS who die in Port Moresby General Hospital. They're buried in coffins, but Nine Mile cemetery is short of space so the coffins are stacked in deep graves, sometimes 10 to a plot. The hospital's director of medical services says the mass burial to be conducted this week is the second or third this year. Dr David Mokela says the 60 bodies and body parts - the majority from amputations - have been in the morgue for more than a month.

"DAVID MOKELA: People should come forward and claim the bodies and do the burial, but we have no options so we have to do that, bear the cost of that. But normally in a PNG custom, relatives are decently buried at home. But for some reason in the last five years we are seeing more and more people who are sort of neglected type of person."

Dr Mokela says the hospital morgue can only take 60 bodies and it's always full. He says the cost of running a refrigerated container to store additional bodies is a strain on hospital finances.

DAVID MOKELA: We are trying our best to try and, you know, control the situation. We are trying to do more frequent mass burials basically because we don't have the capacity to keep all the bodies in the hospital. Hopefully with time we can get more public awareness and people to get the bodies out as soon as possible but I think it's going to be here for some time.

Dr Mokela says someone should research why the bodies are not collected. But the founder of a charity that cares for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS and buries those who die of the disease says fewer bodies would be neglected if the government provided assistance with funeral costs. The Friends Foundation's Tessie Soi says many people lack the money to bury their loved ones.

TESSIE SOI: We don't have anything as a system you know to assist these people. I mean we've got programmes, like I know the NCD governor has a funeral programme, that came out, I think it was a campaign a couple of years ago.

Tessie Soi says she has not heard anything about that since the election and so doesn't know where to refer people who ask for help with burial costs. She says the local authorities must also take a more proactive role in advising relatives about their deceased.

TESSIE SOI: Like, I know with the last burial when the list came out there was one person that the family didn't know anything about until his name came out in the papers. They thought that he had remarried and gone to another province. So that was about it, they just thought that he refused to, you know, get in touch with his family. They hadn't known that he had actually died in hospital.

Tessie Soi says hospital authorities need to publish bulletins of the names of the deceased every month. Earlier this year the National Capital District Commission had to stop Dove Funeral Home from cremating bodies on an open fire. The NCDC's acting chief executive, Leslie Alu, says at present, cremation isn't culturally acceptable but if done properly, it would save on cemetery space.

LESLIE AU: Well, if Dove Funerals had the proper facilities because they did the first one and the air that was emitted from those cremations, everyone thought they were - someone was cooking some foul smell. They could tell that something was being roasted or something.

Leslie Alu says finding new cemetery space is pretty difficult because most available land in Port Moresby is earmarked for development.