South African cities run short of space for cemeteries
JOHANNESBURG: 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 re-opened 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.
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.
“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, said.
People seeking burial space could soon be turned away, he warned.
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.”