Recently, my family and I faced a heart-breaking situation when we tried to honour the memory of my late cousin.
We intended to erect a granite tombstone on his grave in the Mt Edgecombe Cemetery in the north of Durban. Upon visiting my cousin’s resting place, we fell into a state of despair as it became apparent that something had gone terribly wrong. Most of the gravesite markers had disappeared, and the cemetery has only a handful of graves still identifiable. Moreover, at the municipal office, we could not find the official record of his burial to identify his plot allocation with a map of the cemetery.
This has turned the burial site into a place of dispute, causing distress for families like ours. In the absence of an identifiable gravesite, it feels as though he is only memorialised in our hearts and minds.
We recalled the tragedy that we witnessed in the city in the 1980s when Durban experienced devastating floods that resulted in the destruction of some graveyards. This natural disaster caused significant psychological damage and loss for families and communities. Burial sites are vulnerable in the face of environmental challenges.
Our distress caused me to spend time thinking about what are the alternatives that we can explore that can mitigate such risks in the future.
Burying loved ones in graves holds immense cultural and emotional significance for people around the world. If you go to the Origins Museum in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, there are maps of the San people’s burial sites, some of the earliest ever recorded in history.
Indeed, the burial of our species is an evolutionary marker – humans are distinct from other species through their capacity to draw and their practice of burying their dead. The act of visiting gravesites allows individuals to maintain a connection with their deceased relatives, providing comfort, closure, and a space for reflection and remembrance.
Tombstones, indelibly engraved, allow future generations to visit family origins in a world in which migrancy, economic or political, has become a norm. We hear of people making intergenerational pilgrimages to visit ancestral roots. And it is devastating to communities when graveyards are removed, which sometimes happens the world over.
It is not uncommon for the development of roads to require the removal of inner-city cemeteries. In South Africa, there have been conflicts between mining companies and families over old graves. In Mpumalanga province, there were disputes between mining companies and families at the Driefontein coal mine and the Highveld Steel and Vanadium Corporation mine.
These cases highlight the tension between economic development and cultural preservation, as families fight to protect the resting places of their loved ones while mining companies seek to extract valuable resources.
In many countries, including South Africa, municipal authorities are struggling with a shortage of burial space. Rapid urbanisation, population growth, and limited land availability have contributed to this issue.
The challenges are manifold: economic development, malfunctioning of local authorities and climate change, which means that there are floods of a severity never experienced before. Additionally, in some countries, churches that previously kept meticulous records are closed.
In summary, the historical practice of burial is encountering obstacles that demand a re-evaluation of our approach. Alternative options need to be explored to ensure that families can continue to memorialise the resting places of their loved ones.
Grieving and honouring the dead is important. My family’s distress with what we found in Mt Edgecombe underscored this for me. If, however, I rationally weigh up the facts, then the future of graveyards is in jeopardy. How, then, will society continue to honour and remember the deceased?
If I look at what is happening in other countries, people are letting go of burials with individual tombs. My colleague’s brother lives in the UK. He has requested that he be buried in a beautiful woodland that has been designated by the local authority for this purpose. His family is happy enough that they will have a special place to visit.
A friend’s niece scattered her child’s ashes in the garden of remembrance of her local church. She is content to sit on the comfortable bench provided, bring flowers, and think of her child.
In Japan, in an inner city setting, there are memorial buildings where you can purchase a “deposit box” to store the urn containing the ashes of your deceased loved one. And then, on a memorial day, you can book a specifically furnished room and ask for the urn and sit with it.
While cremation is certainly a space-saving practice, it is one that draws criticism as not being green enough – that the fire process means there are carbon emissions in our era of climate concern.
Indeed, our beloved Archbishop Tutu, a leader often ahead of the social practice of the time, rejected cremation in favour of aquamation. Aquamation is a process of alkaline hydrolysis, a water-based process considered to be an eco-friendly alternative. The outcome is the same as cremation in that you, the living, receive the reduced remains of your beloved.
Ultimately, as the availability of burial space becomes limited and other concerns arise, finding new practices to memorialise loved ones becomes essential.
My family has never discussed aquamation, and I’ve heard them argue against cremation. But surely, while we may feel extremely attached to the memorial practice of burial, our changing world makes it less and less feasible. And frankly, our Mt Edgecombe family experience was so distressing that I am advocating within our family that we seriously rethink our future family customs.
Rituals are designed to help human beings grieve their loss. Honouring that principle, surely, we can innovate – we can consider anew what works best for us in our evolving world.