South Africa, the rainbow nation, is a diverse society and one of the most unequal in the world. Its fault lines of race, class, and gender have been deepened by the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the varied cultural and religious landscape of the country, Covid-19 regulations and restrictions have interfered with customary and religious prescriptions around the dead body, including their repatriation for burial. I argue here that regulations that were set up to prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus have entered into the space of the sacred, with long-term consequences for bereaved communities, including for the families of cross-border migrants.

Early on, as the first Covid-19 cases were registered in South Africa, the government declared a total lockdown in the country to gain time and prepare the healthcare system and the overall response to what looked like an imminent disaster. The closure of all ports of entry put an immediate halt to international movements and the transport between provinces. Stringent guidelines on the handling and transportation of mortal remains between provinces and across the borders were introduced. The procedures of acquiring clearance for repatriating mortal remains were made more cumbersome than usual by both the South African and Zimbabwean governments. Zimbabwean regulations treated all bodies entering the country as contagious. The exception to this rule was unnatural deaths. Clearance for repatriation from the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health and Child Care was required before the consulate could provide a clearance, all of which could take up to two weeks to be issued. In addition, grieving families and relatives who wished to accompany the body to Zimbabwe were required to be quarantined for twenty-one days on arrival at the border before proceeding to the funeral. This was an indirect and effective way to prevent relatives of deceased families from accompanying the bodies of their loved ones across the borders to Zimbabwe. The new regulations immediately reduced the number of bodies that are regularly sent to be buried back home. According to a Zimbabwean newspaper, under normal circumstances, sixty bodies would be repatriated through the Beitbridge border post every week, but due to the stringent rules in both countries, only six bodies were repatriated the first week of April 2020. The restrictions on the journeys back home of cross-border migrants forced many families to bury their loved ones in South Africa.

Death is one of the most—if not the most—significant events in people’s lives. While it concerns the individual, it is, in fact, a collective event. Traditional cosmology among Nguni cultures in Southern Africa, among them many migrant communities, consider death to be a threshold to another world, one that continues to be gravitating for the living. Ancestors—the accrued deaths within a family—have great ascendency on the living. With Adam Ashforth, I argue that the relationship with the ancestors must not be seen as a “set of beliefs,” but as a social relationship where one part of this relationship is unknown to us, with the ancestors offering support to the living and demanding from them their adherence to culture.

For many communities that practice African traditional religions in Southern Africa, the dead body is not inert. To bury with dignity requires attention to the connection between the spirit and the body that continues to exist after death. These metaphysical principles are important in understanding why for many, Covid-19 protocols have perturbed the possibility of the dead to properly rest, and why their unrest torments the living. Early this year, a family in the Eastern Cape resorted to digging up the grave of their relative who died of Covid-19 to remove the three layers of plastic from his body, a procedure made mandatory under the new Covid-19 regulations, after which, the body was reburied. The widow could not sleep haunted by the call of the husband suffocated by the plastics he was wrapped with. Loyiso Nqevu, a traditional expert, explained why wrapping up bodies in plastic was a problem: “The spirit does not go to the grave. Instead, it passes on to the world of the spirits.” “But even then,” he adds, “there is a connection between the grave and the spirit.” Oscar Mabuyane, the premier of the Eastern Cape Province, emphatically called for a revision of the regulations, which were modified early this year.

The place chosen for burial is also very relevant. Not only does it reaffirm belonging to a territory and a family, but for those who adhere to African traditional religions in Southern Africa, the burial place is also a place close to the ancestors. The right burial place is “home” where the dead can reunite with their ancestors and where the grave is accessible to the living. Therefore, for many migrants from neighboring countries, being buried at home is an imperative, rooted in emotional bonds, and culture and metaphysical reasons. Failing to do so could have long term implications.

The imperative to be buried back at home has driven a whole economy of death to repatriate migrants who have perished far from home. These businesses started in early 2000 with the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. The sector includes burial societies and funeral parlors specialized in repatriation. One of them, Regional Funerals, located in the high-density migrant area of Yeoville in Johannesburg, conveys the geographic reach of the business in bringing the dead home—on their website they say, we are “not only limited to South Africa and its neighbouring countries,” but also “serve the rest of Africa as well as facilitate repatriation of the deceased the world over.” Repatriation is a booming industry in a country with close to 7 percent of its population being migrants, exposed to high levels of violence and unnatural death. Furthermore, since Covid-19 hit the region, funeral businesses have been central in facilitating funerals and burials both locally and across border. With the Covid-19 regulations for handling human remains, funeral parlors have become even more relevant actors together with mortuary personnel and Emergency Medical Services. Yet black funeral parlors have not received enough support and recognition from the government, motivating them to strike amid the pandemic.

Bishop Ndebele details the effects of Covid-19 restrictions among Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa in a recent study by the Last Rights Project to which I contributed. Ndebele describes that before the pandemic, typically, around twenty-five people would accompany the deceased body on the journey back home. He explains how depending on the family’s beliefs, they would perform rituals along the way during the journey back home:

They would stop, they do their rituals and carry on, and on the other side of the border, they would do another ritual {. . .}

. . . people are stressing [because] they are not doing the rituals, due to COVID. Some of them believe that when they die everyone needs to be there, the family the elders, the neighbours, and now you’ll find that when somebody dies, the wife is alone in South Africa, so they take the body back to Zimbabwe and the wife remains [behind] alone.

Under Covid-19 restrictions only one driver is designated to carry dead bodies and allowed to transport the deceased bodies in certified vehicles. This was something that greatly disturbed bereaved migrant families. No rituals are performed along the route back home and bodies are sent off without their personal belongings. In normal times, a dedicated trailer carries the belongings of the deceased to be delivered to the families back home.

The funeral and journey back home are often arranged by burial societies, relevant agents in the management of death in Southern Africa. Created by migrant workers coming to work in the mines in South Africa in the nineteenth century, burial societies associations have continued to provide dignified burials to African migrants. The director of one the oldest burial societies in Johannesburg associated to the Western United Burial Societies (created in 1945 with approximately eight-hundred members, most of them from Matabeleland south in Zimbabwe), describes the importance of accompanying the body back home.

[When] they see the car and the members of the burial society wearing their uniforms, ready to accompany them across the borders, something that is not possible now . . . This thing of sending the body alone . . . is not in our society. This is like there is no respect, sorry to say, for me is like we are burying a dog. . . . We can’t do what we are here to do, provide burial with dignity. As the family receives the dead body of their loved one home, they feel the support of members of the burial society.

Now with Covid-19, the dead body has become a contagious and dangerous body, sent back home alone and buried without respect and dignity, unsettling the dead and tormenting the living. The Covid-19 regulations on handling mortal remains have obstructed the journey home, altering the wishes of many to go back and find their final place of rest. To bury foreigners locally would leave many permanently out of place, akin to being condemned to live in perpetuity in a foreign land. Many migrants who have experienced xenophobic violence in South Africa fear there will be no rest after death if buried in a local cemetery.

When Covid-19 is gone, the living will be left with intangible consequences as their loved ones have been buried far from home, out of place, unable to rest and unable to be the guide for the living.