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Cemetery design has to consider many sensitive issues: lessons from Johannesburg

Aerial view of cemetery showing graves and vehicles attending burial
An aerial picture of funerals taking place at a section of the Westpark cemetery in Johannesburg. Michelle Spatari/AFP via Getty Images

South Africa’s cities have been shaped by its colonial and apartheid history. And for many years South Africans were divided even after death. Cemeteries reflect the spatial imbalances and segregation inherited from earlier times.

In the nineteenth century, religion determined where a person was buried within a cemetery. This continued into the twentieth century. At the peak of apartheid, segregationist laws stipulated that cemeteries be classified by race and ethnicity.

That ended with the arrival of democracy, but cemeteries continue to reflect changing values and needs.

Municipalities, particularly those in urban areas, are now forced to identify new cemetery planning methods and models that are environmentally sensitive and consistent with diverse cultural practices, and facilitate social cohesion.

The City of Johannesburg, for one, is exploring new approaches to cemetery planning and provision to meet current and future demand. There is a drive by the city to design cemeteries that accommodate everyone, whatever their racial or economic status or religion.

Like many South African cities, Johannesburg faces diverse challenges. Cemeteries take up a lot of land and mostly promote a single-use design. Unless burial practices are reviewed, cities face a real threat of running out of burial land.

My PhD research looked at Waterval Cemetery as an example of Johannesburg’s innovative design of future cemeteries. I wanted to find out what people thought of current and alternative burial options, and what social barriers there might be to the provision of innovative cemeteries that foster sustainability, inclusion and cohesion.

I then studied Diepsloot Memorial Park, an unconventional cemetery that opened in 2007. It was designed to densify burial, foster inclusion and relieve older cemeteries that were reaching capacity. I wanted to investigate the local community’s perceptions and barriers to acceptance of the memorial park. I also wanted to determine the general public’s view of newer cemetery designs that combine burial and recreation.

I found that most people embraced the integration of green elements within cemeteries, as long as these didn’t affect the core function of burial. But integrating these elements for recreation was seen as disrespectful. A majority of the people I spoke to didn’t embrace alternatives. For instance, cremation was perceived as offensive, and not much was known about mausoleums. Educating communities about these alternatives could improve acceptance, particularly given that a substantial number could be open to change.

Re-imagining cemeteries

Cemeteries can be viewed as part of a city’s green infrastructure. This means that green elements such as trees, grass and flowers are integrated in the cemetery’s design. That way they provide services to both the living and the dead. In addition to burial, they also conserve and restore ecological services. These include regulating temperature, soil erosion and flooding, and providing habitats for insects and small animals.

The idea is that when green infrastructure principles are integrated into their design, cemeteries look more pleasing and are used better. Another consideration is that some cultures hold that the dead are aware of their surroundings.

The question is whether Johannesburg’s cemeteries are being planned with this in mind, and whether people will accept this new approach to cemetery design and alternatives to conventional burial. If people resist change, land may not be put to good use. Limiting what land is used for is not sustainable in the long run and increases contestation over diminishing resources.

Conventional burial is interment of human remains underground. Alternatives include interment above ground in mausoleums and cremation which entails burning of human remains into ashes.

Most participants in my Waterval Cemetery research were open to the integration of green elements such as trees and grass within the cemetery as it provides a comforting atmosphere and dignifies the space. It has an ecological function for the city and they believed it promotes health and tranquillity, and thus aids with grieving.

But most people did not approve of recreational activities taking place in cemeteries. They found it offensive.

Participants were aware of alternatives such as cremation. But they had limited knowledge about it and its cost in comparison to conventional burial. Cremation seemed to cause a lot of debate and was a sensitive issue for most participants. People believed cremation was more expensive than conventional burial. Nonetheless, many seemed open to the idea.

But when I studied the Diepsloot Memorial Park, I found resistance to innovation. Firstly, there has been a slow uptake of graves as the cemetery does not comply with users’ values and norms. This is because it combines both burial and recreation. Secondly, most participants would prefer only one body to be buried in a grave instead of multiple bodies as the municipality encourages. Thirdly, the community does not favour the use of flat ground plaques for the cemetery to look like a park and for easy maintenance. Lastly, funeral undertakers discourage members of the community from using the cemetery because restrictions such as use of plaques rather than full body memorials and upright headstones undermine revenue.

Looking ahead

My research showed that there are major social barriers towards adoption of newer methods of interment and cemetery designs.

A shift towards designing innovative cemeteries requires a strong understanding of local socio-cultural contexts.

Cemeteries are some of the most important spaces in cities, especially in South Africa, where burial practices are an important part of diverse cultures and form a link to community history.

The country’s cultural and religious diversity adds to the complexity, and requires greater consultation with the stakeholders.

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