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

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - 25 -

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.

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