Cashing in on the dead in Bulawayo

Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo, is planning to literally cash in on the dead.

As the city grapples with dwindling burial space, a number of options for dealing with the deceased  are on the cards, including popularising cremations and establishing a cemetery for the rich, which would see revenue flowing to city coffers.

The death rate in the city of 653, 377 people, according to the latest national census carried out in 2012, is so high that City Fathers are battling to find alternative burial space. The only remaining cemetery where ordinary burials still take place is likely to fill up before the end of the year.

Regulatory approval is being sought for a new cemetery in Pumula South – a high density suburb – that would serve the city for another 28 years, according to the Bulawayo City Council report for July.

“The piece of land measures approximately 70 hectares in extent and is expected to accommodate about 150,000 graves,” the council report says.

Ordinary burial fees at the new cemetery would range from $116 during weekdays for adults to $207 on weekends. The fee goes up to $155 during weekdays and $258 if a casket is used.

Council says its cemeteries are filling up faster than it expected due to the high number of HIV and Aids deaths in Zimbabwe and the reluctance by locals to embrace cremations. Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world but Aids related deaths dropped from 170, 000 in 2003 to about 60, 000 last year.

This year Bulawayo councillors have been organising awareness meetings with residents urging them to embrace cremations to save burial space.

One of the councillors, Silas Chigora, believes the problem has to do with perceptions as crematoriums are largely considered a preserve of the rich. “A positive way to change the people’s perceptions on this matter would be to make cremation services cheaper, or even provide these services free of charge,” he said.

In July, according to the council report, only eight cremations were carried out in Bulawayo.

However, the city council, battling dwindling revenues, believes it can take advantage of the high demand for burial space by establishing another cemetery for the well-to-do with higher rates than the one at Pumula South.

In its proposals laid out at the last monthly council meeting, the local authority said it would cost $500 to reserve a grave at the planned Athlone West Cemetery. The $500 is for the first five years and thereafter one pays 50 percent to reserve the grave for another five years.

The local authority’s director of health services Zanele Hwalima said Bulawayo currently has no upmarket cemeteries, which are only found in the capital Harare.

Council has proposed to charge $575 for burials during the week and $690 on weekends and public holidays at Athlone West.  The fees would be even steeper for non-residents as they are pegged at $776. 25 between Monday and Friday and $948 on Saturdays. On Sundays and public holidays, fees would be pegged at $1,035.

“If all the graves are sold, the monies collected would pay off the investment into establishing of this cemetery,” Hwalima is quoted as saying in the council report. “A section would be demarcated for residents who might wish to reserve an allotment. The reservation would be renewable every five years, failing which it lapses.”

Council says it is worried by delays in the approval of the new cemeteries by government as it is running out of burial space.

“West Park Cemetery is fast running out of space for burial,” the latest council report on burials during the month of July reads. “The delay in gazetting the cemetery at Pumula South is a cause for concern and council is making follow ups with the Local Government, Public Construction and National Housing ministry.”

In July, the city recorded 452 burials at its seven cemeteries, with West Park Cemetery taking the most as the six others are basically full and burials are only conducted for residents who reserved their graves.

Kholwani Nyathi is an award winning journalist based in Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo.

Image: West Park cemetery, Bulawayo. Kholwani Nyathi.

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