Reimagining cemeteries

In South Africa, death is a big deal. Researchers have found that in KwaZulu-Natal, an adult’s funeral can amount to the equivalent of a year’s income, while other researchers have found that 33% of South Africans have formal funeral insurance and 32% belong to a burial society. This is partly explained by the importance placed on funerals by many of the traditional South African belief cultures, where it is believed that the deceased does not cease to exist, but continues living in the spirit world as an ancestor. The ancestor maintains a relationship with his/her family, hence the importance of honoring the dead. It is for this reason that some researchers have argued that some South African cultural groups view cremation as being a ‘curse.’

The majority of South African cities are struggling to keep up with the demand for new graves. A 2012 report by SALGA indicates that 80% of participating municipalities in the study were running short of land for new cemeteries, and that 50% of the cemeteries in participating municipalities’ jurisdictions were already full. The crisis has become so bad that some municipalities have begun reusing old graves, a practice which has been vehemently opposed by the Culture, Religion and Linguistic commission.

There are however alternatives to traditional cemeteries that are likely to be compatible with traditional belief systems, and which would enable cities to address the cemetery crisis mentioned earlier in this article. One of these alternatives is the natural burial movement. The essence of this movement is to return the body of the deceased to the ground in as natural and environmentally sensitive a way as possible. This includes being buried in biodegradable containers, and the markers of the grave being as sensitive to the landscape as possible, with many markers only being a tree, shrub or engraved flat indigenous stone.

I believe that this idea can be taken further, and that land either used or set aside for recreational parks and as conservation areas could be hybridized into a joint park/eco-cemetery. This would allow municipalities to use existing land holdings without having to change the existing use of the site. It would also allow for us to remember the dead in a more joyful fashion. Instead of having to visit a stoic mono-functional graveyard, families could picnic and play under the trees of their parents, grandparents and even their great-grandparents. And as the children play they could be told stories of their departed elders, keeping alive the memory of dead family members.

Another possibility is to use natural burial as a way to fund nature conservancies and nature reserves. Rights to be buried in these areas, and to access the gravesite, could be sold to families as a “graveyard servitude.” In turn, the funds generated from this sale could be used to fund the nature conservation activities, resulting in a win-win situation for everyone: the municipality has one fewer graveyard to provide for, the family of the deceased have access to a more personal gravesite, and the conservancy obtains further funding for its nature conservation activities.

It is time to move beyond seeing the issue of cemeteries as an issue of land shortage, to begin seeing them as opportunities to reimagine bereavement and to return to an older, simpler and more beautiful way of remembering our lost loved ones.

Stuart Denoon-Stevens is a professional planner, a junior lecturer at the University of the Free State, and a researcher focusing on municipal land management, with a particular emphasis on pro-poor approaches.

Photo credit: Brendon Bosworth


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