Looking for new ways to bury the dead

South Africa's nine provinces are running out of burial land

DURBAN has scheduled a conference in June to discuss human remains disposal because of a grave crisis.

Seven years ago the Ethekwini municipality established six cemeteries with 60,000 new graves in an attempt to try and create more burial space.

Mofokeng said there is going to be a Burial Conference in Durban in June, which will attempt to address the issue.

South Africa's nine provinces are running out of burial land at a time when deeply rooted custom demands that everyone have a sacred, dedicated plot in a graveyard.

Cities and municipalities are in a bind as most have less than 20 years' burial space. Gauteng is already at saturation point with Ekurhuleni having less than 20 years' shelf life.

Provinces with a mainly rural population do not have a problem. Instead, those provinces are trying to persuade people not to bury relatives in their backyards. Culture and tradition will have to change as urbanisation forces us to change our burial practices.


Various dispersal methods are being investigated and most cities are trying to persuade their residents to adopt new ways of thinking.

"It would help if people wrote a living will so that relatives could cremate them. There are memorial walls where the ashes can be kept," Jenny Moodley of Johannesburg City Parks said.

Cape Town is looking at extending some of the cemeteries, and has piloted a mausoleum project.

This is where many coffins are stored in shelves in a kind of room built above the ground.

The pilot project will give the city an idea if the public are interested in using mausoleums instead of traditional graves, Susan Brice, cemeteries coordinator said.

"There is a slow but steady increase in cremations ," Brice said.

With only 37 percent of people choosing cremation over burial, she urged people to tell their family if they want to be cremated after they die.

"When in doubt, the family normally chooses burial. Burial is generally more expensive and there is often a lot of pressure placed on the bereaved to provide expensive coffins and memorials afterwards".

Stacking, where three or four coffins go into one grave, is practised in Ekurhuleni, where graves are dug eight feet deep.

Durban at one stage toyed with the idea of standing coffins upright.


The municipalities have yet to engage funeral directors who make a bigger profits out of ground burials. Some undertakers in Emfuleni had to be taken to court over illegal cemeteries.

"Burials were conducted on private land without following proper procedures. We obtained a high court interdict keeping Ncamane Chicken Farming CC from utilising the land. The owner of the said illegal cemeteries has been summoned with an administration fine of R574,750," Emfuleni spokesperson Stanley Gaba said.

"It is estimated that about 418 legal and illegal operators are doing business in Emfuleni. This estimated number is derived from the register handed over to Emfuleni by Lekoa Cemeteries.

"It was established that a mere 45 operators are registered or known in Emfuleni as they have registered with the department. Only 29 of these operators comply with the law and health standards.

"Due to the high mortality rate the current available cemeteries cannot cope with all the burials at once," he said.

Moodley said Gauteng is paying particular attention to graveyards as they might be the green lungs of the cities. As cities use up all the land, the graveyards, tastefully planted with trees and flowers, can increase our green acreage.

"We are trying to balance the demand of land between the living and the dead. The cemeteries are memorial parks where one can visit, a peaceful place for relaxation or contemplation. They will serve a twofold purpose for the living."


  • Cape Town: has 36 cemeteries, 15 dormant and 21 that are fully operational.
  • Johannesburg: has 35 cemeteries and 26 dormant. Waterval Cemetery in Midrand opened in 2006 and has 44000 plots. Diepsloot Memorial Park opened space in 2007, for 120000 burials.
  • Ekurhuleni: has 20 cemeteries, 12 with life-span less than five years.
  • Vaal: has 10 cemeteries, five full and five operational.
  • Durban: has 60 cemeteries, 58 are already full and two cemeteries have fresh grave sites.

These cemeteries have 500,000 grave sites but with the recycling method over 70 years, more than 1,2 million bodies are buried in those graves.


Dr Sylvester Hlathi, who is the President of Limpopo Unified Traditional Health Practitioners Association, said cremation would not happen in rural areas because chiefs provide land for graves.

He said cremation might only happen in urban areas due to lack of space for graves since those areas have limited land because of the high density of businesses and a large population.

"I hear that people, especially Africans, are concerned as to how they will be able to worship their ancestors if the bodies were to be cremated. We do not worship the body but the spirit of the dead relative, which escapes the body in any type of death," said Hlathi yesterday.

"Sometimes a person dies from fire but because the spirit cannot burn, rituals such as worshipping the person as an ancestor can still be performed" added Hlathi.

Hlathi trained as a herbalist in Mozambique in 1982 and he is regarded as an outspoken herbalist with vast knowledge in traditional affairs of the African people.

Most areas in the rural parts of KwaZulu-Natal have always done residential burials.

Over the years as parts of the province are urbanised, there are semi-rural areas that have been allocated burial space and have stopped backyard burials, but shortage of space is not much of a challenge for these rural and semi-rural areas.

Bushbuckridge acting municipal manager, Andries Mapaila, told Sowetan that lack of land for graves was not yet a problem in the area.

"We discourage the practice that people should bury their dead relatives behind their houses.

"I know however, that this practice is still common in many villages that are controlled by chiefs," said Mapaila yesterday.

He said he could not predict the life-span of grave yards in the Bushbuckridge area where the dwellers are said to be about a million.