Grave dilemma: Major cities in South Africa short of burial space
Increasing land demand for the living could mean cremation and grave recycling become mandatory
In the middle of the vast Avalon cemetery in Soweto, Johannesburg, two men shovel soil from a grave containing remains buried years ago.
They are preparing the grave to be reused as towns across South Africa are fast running out of space to bury the dead.
Population growth, migrationand an influx of foreigners has put huge pressure on land in urban areas. Adding to the problem is resistance to cremation.
Between 45 and 60 graves are re-opened every week to allow for second burials in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city and economic hub.
Officials say if no action is taken to change how the dead are laid to rest, urban areas will run out of room in as little as 50 years.
“Burial space is fast diminishing. This is caused by the fact that Johannesburg is experiencing high migration,” said Reggie Moloi, the city cemeteries and crematoria manager.
Johannesburg is not the only city battling the shortage. Durban raised the alarm more than a decade ago.
The city had an unusually high death rate in the 1980s, having been hit hard by political violence and HIV/AIDS.
“We noticed that cemeteries then filled up in a shortest period of time and that soon … we were going to run out of burial space,” Thembinkosi Ngcobo, the head of parks in ethekwini, which includes Durban, said.
People seeking burial space could soon be turned away, he warned.
“The situation is dire and not readily understood … because to the eye it seems there is sufficient space,” said Denis Ing, deputy chairman of the South African Cemeteries Association.
The crisis has pushed officials to think creatively about how best to dispose of the dead.
While recycling graves has helped ease the situation, cremation faces resistance from communities, which see it as unnatural and against tradition.
At Roodepoort near Soweto, the Few black Africans are cremated in Durban, with just one a week on average compared to dozens of burials.
During a recent campaign to raise awareness of the crisis, it became clear that traditionalists in the port city are even sceptical of shared graves. Sipamla family buried 87-year-old mother and grandmother Caroline Sipamla in the same grave as her son.
“Graveyards are full,” said Puleng Sipamla as undertakers covered the remains of her mother. “We thought it would be easier for us to re-open and it’s cheaper than digging a new grave.”
Sipamla had made her feelings known on the matter, said her granddaughter Zoleka Sipamla, 23.
“She was pretty clear — no cremation.”
Rev Harold Ginya of the Church of the Nazarene encourages his worshippers to reuse graves but discourages cremation.
“We are promoting this. No one will complain that you are on top of me,” he said.
While older people are opposed to cremation, the young are more open.
“It would be helpful if people understood why we need to be cremated. There is a land problem,” said Zoleka Sipamla, a law student.
The limited appeal of the crematorium has a lot to do with what some associate with it: the fires of hell.
“They say,’ Why would I send my loved one to hell?’” said Moloi.
Others believe a bodily form is required to reach the afterlife — not ashes.
“Cremation is culturally prohibitive for people … bodies matter, human bodies have power and they have value,” said University of New Hampshire anthropologist, Casey Golomski.
Workers dig a grave at Roodepoort cemetery in Johannesburg, South Africa. Population growth, migration to urban areas and an influx of foreigners has put huge pressure on land in many urban centres. Adding to the problem is a cultural resistance to cremation.