Grave dilemma: South African cities short of ceme­tery space

Kuwait Times - - Analysis -

In the mid­dle of the vast Avalon ceme­tery in Jo­han­nes­burg’s Soweto town­ship, two gravedig­gers shov­elled soil out of an old grave con­tain­ing re­mains buried years ago. They were pre­par­ing the grave to be reused as towns across South Africa are fast run­ning out of space to bury the dead. Pop­u­la­tion growth, mi­gra­tion to ur­ban ar­eas and an in­flux of for­eign­ers has put huge pres­sure on land in ur­ban ar­eas. Ad­ding to the prob­lem is a cul­tural re­sis­tance to the prac­tice of cre­ma­tion.

Be­tween 45 and 60 graves are re­opened each week on av­er­age to al­low for sec­ond buri­als in Jo­han­nes­burg, the coun­try’s largest city and eco­nomic hub. Au­thor­i­ties warn that 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 Joburg is cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing high mi­gra­tion,” said Reg­gie Moloi, the city’s ceme­ter­ies and cre­ma­to­ria man­ager.

Jo­han­nes­burg is not the only city in South Africa bat­tling the short­age. The south­east­ern coastal city of Durban raised the alarm more than a decade ago. The city had an un­usu­ally high death rate in the 1980s, hav­ing been par­tic­u­larly hard hit by political vi­o­lence and HIV/AIDS, say of­fi­cials.

‘Run out of burial space’ “We no­ticed that ceme­ter­ies then filled up in a short­est pe­riod of time and that quite soon ... (we were) go­ing to run out of burial space,” Them­binkosi Ng­cobo, the head of parks in eThek­wini, which in­cludes Durban, told AFP. Peo­ple seek­ing burial space could soon be turned away, he warned. “We are fac­ing a very se­ri­ous prob­lem.” “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 pub­lic did not grasp the scale of the prob­lem, he said.

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 still faces sig­nif­i­cant re­sis­tance from African com­mu­ni­ties, which see it as un­nat­u­ral and against tra­di­tion. At Rood­e­poort near Soweto, the Si­pamla fam­ily buried 87-year-old mother and grand­mother Caro­line Si­pamla in the same grave as her son. “Grave­yards are very 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.”

Rev­erend Harold Ginya of the Church of the Nazarene en­cour­ages his wor­ship­pers to re­use graves - but dis­cour­ages cre­ma­tion. “We are pro­mot­ing this kind of thing. No one will com­plain that you are on top of me,” he said. While many older peo­ple are op­posed to cre­ma­tion, the younger gen­er­a­tion may prove more open.

‘Peo­ple need to be cre­mated’ “It would be help­ful if peo­ple un­der­stood why peo­ple need to be cre­mated be­cause there is a prob­lem of land,” said Zoleka Si­pamla, a law stu­dent. But the lim­ited ap­peal of the cre­ma­to­rium has a lot to do with what some peo­ple as­so­ciate with it: The fires of hell. “They say, ‘Why would I send my loved one to hell?’” said Moloi. Oth­ers op­posed to cre­ma­tion 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.

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 some tra­di­tion­al­ists in the port city were even skep­ti­cal of shared graves, said Ng­cobo. One el­derly man told of­fi­cials he had never shared a bed with his daugh­ter-in­law. “How do you ex­pect me to share a gravesite with her?” he asked. “That is to­tally un­ac­cept­able”.

The in­creas­ing land de­mands of the liv­ing could mean that cre­ma­tion and grave re­cy­cling be­come manda­tory, of­fi­cials warn. “There is go­ing to come a time when the peo­ple of Jo­han­nes­burg will not have a choice but to go to the cre­ma­to­ria or re­use a grave,” warned Moloi. “We can­not be hav­ing land re­served for ceme­ter­ies.” The sit­u­a­tion could be eased by a con­tro­ver­sial con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment pro­posed by the gov­ern­ment, which would al­low the forcible trans­fer of land to re­dress the in­equal­i­ties of apartheid and colo­nial­ism. — AFP

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