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Cremation the only option as cemetries fill
Saturday 7 May 2005
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SOUTH AFRICA: Cremation the only option as cemetries fill

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Local cemetries are full to capacity and set to close

DURBAN, 10 June (PLUSNEWS) - Due to the increasing numbers of AIDS-related deaths, burial space in municipal cemeteries in the South African port city of Durban has become hard to find.

Only two of the 53 cemeteries in Durban & District, which have to cover a population of 3.5 million, have space for fresh graves, according to Thembinkosi Ngcobo, Head of Parks and Cemeteries in the city.

If the amount of people dying every month remains unchanged, space will be exhausted within two years, Ngcobo said. If there is an increase in the mortality rate, as AIDS analysts predict, the two remaining graveyards in South Africa's third largest city will be full much earlier.

The two cemeteries with vacant gravesites, Red Hill and Dudley Street, are the two 'youngest' graveyards in Durban, established only eight years ago. Initially, they were estimated to have a lifespan of 15 years, Ngcobo said, but now, with more and more people dying from AIDS, both cemeteries will be filled to capacity after only 10 years. The rest of Durban's burial grounds do not have a single vacant gravesite available.

About five years ago, an average of six funerals took place in the Durban area on a Saturday; today that number has increased to around 40 to 45. Most of the dead are between aged between 18 and 30 and have died of natural causes, which Ngcobo believes "makes it safe to assume that the majority of these cases died of HIV/AIDS”.

Durban is the capital of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa's eastern coastal province, which has an HIV prevalence rate of 33 percent compared to the national average of 25 percent.

Since there has been little space to lay to rest the deceased, the municipality started to recycle graves a few years ago. Legally, the city is permitted to re-use gravesites after 10 years – although people generally expect to be able to visit their relatives' grave for more than a decade and not find it "occupied" by someone else.

The municipality is aware of this ethical dilemma. "We are trying to be very sensitive towards people's feelings, religious beliefs and cultures," Ngcobo said, but added that cemetery space is and will remain a "serious problem".

Since graves can only be recycled a limited amount of times, it can only be a short-term solution to the space problem. The Durban municipality had to close down a cemetery in Chesterville, for example, after each gravesite had been recycled five times - or in other words, contained five bodies. After that, the corpses no longer decomposed because the micro-organisms that normally putrefy the bodies were saturated. It was then that Ngcobo realised that "we were in more trouble than we thought".

There seems to be only one way to solve the problem – cremation. The burning of bodies, however, has traditionally not been culturally acceptable for most Africans.

The Durban municipality therefore launched an education campaign to encourage cremation and advertise the recycling of graves. "If two members of the same family die five years after each other, for instance, we would recommend that the family bury them in the same grave," explained Ngcobo.

The municipality has also established links with religious leaders in the communities who brief their congregations during church services about the advantages of cremation. In addition, the municipality offers free tours of crematoriums.

As a result of these efforts, the number of weekly cremations among Durban's African population has risen from 1 percent to 2 percent in the past twelve months. Now, an average of five Africans are cremated every week. "About five years ago, we didn't have a single cremation in the African population. People would chase us away if we tried to speak to them about burning corpses," said Ngcobo.

As a short-term solution, the municipality has acquired 100 hectares of land outside of Umlazi township, about 10 kilometres from the city, which will serve the entire greater Durban area.

This new "regional" cemetery - a R8 million (US $1.2 million) project, which is expected to be completed by the end of this year - also marks the beginning of a new trend from local to regional graveyards. "We will soon have no more local cemeteries, but only this regional one," said Ngcobo.

The municipality will close down one local cemetery after the other in the near future, although it will continue to maintain existing gravesites. Some cemeteries, however, which do not comply with environmental regulations, will be shut down immediately, Ngcobo said.


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