AIDS, urbanisation overcrowd S. African graveyards

AIDS and a growing urban population are forcing South African officials to find new cemeteries and encourage families to bury several members in the same grave, Johannesburg city authorities said Wednesday.

Johannesburg’s Alexandra township has no spare grave spaces while Soweto’s Avalon cemetery sees more than 200 burials each weekend, City Parks spokeswoman Jenny Moodley said.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the current infrastructure,” she said. “A lot of people are saying we should cremate because in the future we don’t want to have to pay large amounts in tax for the upkeep of cemetery spaces.”

With thousands flocking to cities from impoverished rural areas of South Africa and its neighbors in search of work and more than 6.5 million of the country’s 47 million people infected with HIV, demand would grow further, she said.

Every weekend, convoys of buses carrying mourners bring South African townships to a standstill as families bury their dead. Johannesburg City Parks, responsible for municipal graveyards, expects a 5 to 10 percent increase in deaths each year.

“We like to think it’s mainly down to urbanisation,” she said, adding the municipality did not have firm data on causes of death.

African traditional beliefs put many off cremation, she said, so the city was also encouraging families to put several members in the same grave - described as the “second burial” option - to save space and pack as many corpses as possible into overcrowded sites.

“For each hectare, we can only do 2,000 primary burials,” said Moodley. “If residents were willing to have second burials then we’d have an additional 1.5 million burial spaces across the city.”

The opening of two large cemeteries on the outskirts of Johannesburg - with an official population of around 4 million although some say it could be twice that size - would almost double the city’s burial capacity, she said, creating almost half a million new grave plots.

“That should be enough to last us another 30 to 40 years.”

Provided by ArmMed Media
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by David A. Scott, M.D.