Inside the morgue at the Pantang Hospital in Accra, Ghana, a stench of decaying bodies pervades a room where bodies placed in coffins have begun to spill onto the open entrance space.
“We are running out of space,” the hospital’s director, Dr. Frank Baning, told CNN at the facility based in the northern part of Ghana’s Greater Accra region.
Since the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to large public gatherings, relatives have opted to store corpses of their loved ones in morgues for longer than usual until they can hold a proper funeral.
“It has been difficult because there are not many other mortuaries around to hold the bodies,” Baning said.
‘Only if we are forced’
Ghanaian funerals usually last several days and up to a week in some parts. They are deeply symbolic ceremonies involving thousands of mourners to celebrate the life of the deceased.
So it was a bitter pill to swallow for many, when the country’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, imposed the ban on large gatherings.
He offered an alternative: perform a private burial with no more than 25 guests.
Ghana currently has more than 6,486 cases of the coronavirus and 31 deaths have been confirmed, according to latest figures from the health ministry. Earlier this month, Akufo-Addo extended the restriction of public gatherings until May 31.
A few families have taken this route, but by and large, many relatives have opted to wait until the ban is lifted to bury their loved ones.
Chris Awuyah, a Ghanaian professor based in the United States, lost his uncle in Ghana to natural causes in February.
“Over 2,000 people were expected to be present at his funeral,” he told CNN. All of that changed when government restrictions prevented the funeral from happening as planned.
“A large part of funerals is about bringing families together. That matters to us,” says Awuyah, whose deceased 87-year-old uncle, Jonas Awuyah, was considered the head of the family.
“We are hopeful we can have a proper funeral for him.”
He acknowledges that his family still has not come to a definitive conclusion as to whether to bury his uncle privately or postpone the burial to a later date. But he hinted that he is willing to wait for as long as possible until a proper funeral can be planned.
“The only way we will hold [the funeral] privately is if our hands are tied and we are forced. We dread having to make this decision.”
A risk to health workers
Meanwhile, at Pantang, some have expressed concern because the number of bodies at its morgue has created congestion, posing a health risk to workers serving on the front lines.
Thomas Awuku has worked at Pantang’s morgue for 27 years. According to the World Health Organization, there are risks for those handling dead bodies “if the deceased are infected with [a] highly infectious disease.”
Awuku told CNN that the hospital has taken all proper measurements to ensure the safety of its workers “and will keep the bodies we already have as a respect to the families.”
Despite the overflow of bodies, the hospital is reluctant to resort to mass burials because the WHO cautions that this can have detrimental psychological effects and ” “traumatize families and communities.”
It is part of the reason why Pantang Hospital is working with families to store the bodies for as long as possible, says Awuku.
The Ghana Health Service did not immediately respond for a request to comment and the country’s health minister declined to comment when reached by CNN.
A huge toll
At Gillman and Abbey Funeral Services located in Accra, they have also seen a rise in the number of bodies stored in their morgues.
Storing bodies there is charged at a daily rate but fewer families are arranging for bodies to be removed.
Administrator Lawrence Apaloo says the pandemic has been “completely negative for the business.”
“Sure, the longer the body is here the higher the bill will be,” he says. “But it is unpredictable to know when the family will come to collect the body.”
Other services Gillman and Abbey provide, like pall bearing, hearse rentals, the selling of caskets and venue decorations, have come to a complete halt, he says.
“Everything is on hold and no one knows when things will come to normal again. It has taken a huge toll.”