Many sensitive issues must be considered in the design of cemeteries: lessons from Johannesburg


The cities of South Africa have been shaped by its colonial and apartheid history. And for many years, South Africans have been divided even after their deaths. Cemeteries reflect the spatial imbalances and segregation inherited from ancient times.

In the 19th century, religion determined where a person was buried in a cemetery. This continued until the twentieth century. At the height of apartheid, segregationist laws stipulated that cemeteries were to be classified by race and ethnicity.

It ended with the advent of democracy, but cemeteries continue to reflect changing values ​​and needs.

Municipalities, especially those in urban areas, are now forced to identify new methods and models of cemetery planning that are environmentally friendly and compatible with diverse cultural practices, and facilitate social cohesion.

The city of Johannesburg, for its part, is exploring new approaches to the planning and development of cemeteries to meet current and future demand. There is a desire on the part of the city to design cemeteries that welcome everyone, regardless of their racial or economic status or their religion.

Like many South African cities, Johannesburg faces various challenges. Cemeteries occupy a lot of land and mainly promote a single-use design. Unless burial practices are reviewed, cities face a real threat of running out of burial grounds.

My doctoral research looked at Waterval Cemetery as an example of the innovative design of future Johannesburg cemeteries. I wanted to know what people think about current and alternative burial options, and what social barriers there might be to providing innovative cemeteries that promote sustainability, inclusion and cohesion.

I then studied Diepsloot Memorial Park, an unconventional cemetery that opened in 2007. It was designed to densify burial, promote inclusion, and relieve older cemeteries that were reaching their full capacity. I wanted to investigate the perceptions and barriers of the local community to accepting the memorial park. I also wanted to know the general public’s perspective on new cemetery designs that combine burial and recreation.

I discovered that most people embrace the inclusion of green elements in cemeteries, as long as these do not affect the main function of the burial. But incorporating these elements for recreational purposes was seen as disrespectful. The majority of people I have spoken to have not adopted an alternative. For example, cremation was seen as offensive, and little was known about mausoleums. Educating communities on these alternatives could improve acceptance, especially since a substantial number could be open to change.

Reinventing cemeteries

Cemeteries can be seen as part of a city’s green infrastructure. This means that green elements such as trees, grass and flowers are incorporated into the design of the cemetery. In this way, they provide services to the living and the dead. In addition to landfilling, they 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 the principles of green infrastructure are incorporated into their design, cemeteries look nicer and are better used. Another consideration is that some cultures hold that the dead are aware of their surroundings.

The question is whether Johannesburg’s cemeteries are 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, the land may not be put to good use. Limiting land use is not sustainable in the long term and increases contestation over depletion of resources.

Conventional burial is the burial of human remains underground. Alternatives include above-ground burial in mausoleums and cremation which involves burning human remains to ashes.

Most of the participants in my research on Waterval cemetery were open to incorporating green elements such as trees and grass into the cemetery, as it creates a heartwarming atmosphere and gives dignity to the space. . It has an ecological function for the city and they believed that it promotes health and tranquility, and thus helps in mourning.

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

The participants knew of alternatives such as cremation. But they had limited knowledge about it and its cost compared to conventional burial. Cremation seemed to generate a lot of debate and was a sensitive issue for most of the attendees. People believed that cremation was more expensive than conventional burial. Still, many seemed open to the idea.

But when I studied Diepsloot Memorial Park, I discovered resistance to innovation. First, there has been a slow adoption of the graves as the cemetery does not respect the values ​​and standards of the users. This is because it combines both funeral and recreation. Second, most participants would prefer that one body be buried in a grave instead of several bodies as encouraged by the municipality. Third, the community does not favor the use of flat ground plaques to make the cemetery look like a park and for easy maintenance. Finally, funeral directors discourage community members from using the cemetery because restrictions such as the use of plaques rather than full body memorials and upright headstones undermine income.

Look ahead

My research has shown that there are significant social barriers to adopting new methods of burial and cemetery design.

A move towards the design of innovative cemeteries requires a solid understanding of local socio-cultural contexts.

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

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


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