Internationally, thousands of people are reported to be missing every year. Police statistics from 2000 to 2020 revealed that 94,252 people were reported missing in South Africa, of whom 16,151 were children. In 2013, a child went missing every five hours in South Africa. Another scenario is when tragedy strikes and people are presumed dead, but their bodies are not recovered. One of these South African tragedies happened when the Buffel’s River burst its banks on 25 January 1981 and flooded the town of Laingsburg. Some families lost up to nine family members in the flood in which 104 people died. According to official records, the bodies of 56 people were never recovered. On March 8, 2014, Malaysian flight 370 disappeared without a trace, with 238 passengers and crew members from 13 different countries.

Although different circumstances, the families of missing people share a common pain, with emotions fluctuating between hope and despair of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. Grief is complicated by the need to keep hope alive. Without closure, it is a further challenge to learn to live with the uncertainty and this changes the natural process of grief, bringing about feelings of doubt, pain, and isolation. Families and friends long for answers and keep looking for a point from which to confront their loss. However, without a body, the mind and heart still want to believe anything but the truth.

We naturally associate death and grieving with a physical body. Many funeral arrangements involve a viewing, followed by a service that ends when the casket is lowered into the ground or when the ashes are handed to the family. Without a body, these traditions are disrupted and our mind searches for evidence that the person is dead. The first step in the normal grieving process, denial, can be prolonged. In some cases people struggle to get past the anger that the frustration about ‘not knowing” brings. Having this kind of loss would cause “frozen grief” for anyone, because this kind of loss is so unbearable.

Dr Pauline Boss, author of “Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief” has worked with families who have lost loved ones to war, through terrorism and through mental illness. Her extensive research over 40 years of working with “ambiguous loss” has resulted in guidelines for helping those with this type of loss. She suggests that it is acceptable to have two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time: “he/she is probably gone, but maybe coming back”. Dr Boss says that people can learn how to live with ambiguity so that closure is not needed anymore. In this case traditional grief therapy should be avoided because people are not ready to see their loss as a death and may get angry if people try to console them in such a way.

On a practical level, a death without a body disrupts the traditional system of cremation and burial and makes it difficult to comfort a family. What psychologists call “ambiguous deaths” require extra sensitivity from family and friends and a unique handling of the final arrangements.  Sonja Smith Elite Funeral Group can assist with funerals of missing persons, which can be handled similarly to memorial services if that is the wish of the family. Some families find comfort in displaying photos or videos of the deceased at the funeral service so that they can “see” the person who died one last time. Some create a memorial table, displaying items that were important to the life that is mourned. Putting together the images or making a video can help a family with the healing process.

As time passes and a person remains missing, several legal questions arise. Families of missing persons not only experience emotional trauma but also have to face practical, financial, and legal difficulties, including the handling of the estate of the deceased. Most authorities do not consider “missing” to be a legal status and this affects families’ rights to property, inheritance, guardianship of children, and remarriage.

In South Africa, the Inquests Act provides that the magistrate must be certain beyond reasonable doubt that the person is dead before he or she may record a finding that the person is “presumably dead”, whereas a presumption of death may be granted in terms of the common-law procedure if it is proved on a balance of probabilities that the person is dead. When a person goes missing without a trace or disappears in an air crash or at sea or during a war, the absence of a body often makes it difficult to obtain a death certificate, which in turn delays the winding up the estate. It is best to seek legal advice at this stage. The law calls people who have disappeared “absentees” or “missing persons”. A court order, declaring the missing person to be presumed dead can resolve legal problems. Once an order is granted the missing person is then presumed to be dead, the estate of the missing person may be wound up and a disposition in terms of beneficiaries and heirs may be made. If the missing person was married then such marriage may be dissolved. When the High Court makes an order presuming the death of a married person it may also make an order that the marriage was dissolved by death from a stated date. In practice, this will be the date of presumption of death.

Sonja Smith Elite Funeral Group can guide you with the planning of a memorial service for a missing loved one.  We understand the special circumstances and the emotional and legal complexities and will assist with compassion and empathy. Contact us: