South Africa’s cities have been shaped by its colonial history and apartheid. And for many years, South Africans were divided even after their death. Cemeteries reflect spatial imbalances and segregation inherited from ancient times.
In the XIXth century, religion determined where a person was buried in a cemetery. This continued into the 20th century. At the height of apartheid, segregationist laws stipulated that cemeteries should be classified by race and ethnicity.
This ended with the arrival of democracy, but cemeteries continue to reflect changing values and needs.
Municipalities, particularly those in urban areas, are now compelled to identify new modes and models for the development of cemeteries which are respectful of the environment and in keeping with various cultural practices, and which facilitate social cohesion.
The City of Johannesburg, for its part, is exploring new approaches to planning and providing cemeteries to meet current and future demand. There is a desire by the city to design cemeteries that welcome everyone, regardless of racial or economic status or religion.
Like many South African cities, Johannesburg faces various challenges. Graveyards take up a lot of land and mostly promote single-use design. Unless burial practices are reviewed, cities face a real threat of running out of burial grounds.
My PhD to research considered Waterval Cemetery as an example of Johannesburg’s innovative design for future cemeteries. I wanted to know what people thought about current and alternative burial options, and what social barriers there might be to providing innovative cemeteries that promote sustainability, inclusion, and cohesion.
I can studied Diepsloot Memorial Park, an unconventional cemetery opened in 2007. It was designed to densify burial, promote inclusion and provide relief to old cemeteries that were reaching capacity. I wanted to investigate local community perceptions and barriers to acceptance of the Memorial Park. I also wanted to know the general public’s opinion on new designs for cemeteries that combine burial and recreation.
I have found that most people accept the integration of green elements into cemeteries, as long as these do not affect the main function of the burial. But incorporating these elements for recreation was seen as disrespectful. The majority of people I spoke to did not embrace alternatives. For example, cremation was seen as offensive and not much was known about mausoleums. Educating communities about these alternatives could improve acceptance, especially since a significant number could be open to change.
Cemeteries can be considered 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 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 the principles of green infrastructure are integrated into their design, cemeteries look more pleasant and are better used. Another consideration is that some cultures hold that the dead are aware of their surroundings.
The question is whether the cemeteries in Johannesburg 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 the contestation of dwindling 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 participants in my Waterval Cemetery research were open to incorporating green elements such as trees and grass into the cemetery, as it creates a comforting atmosphere and gives dignity to the space. . It has an ecological function for the city and they believed it promoted health and tranquility, and therefore helped with bereavement.
But most people did not approve of the recreational activities that took place in cemeteries. They found it offensive.
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 attendees. People believed that cremation was more expensive than conventional burial. Nevertheless, many seemed open to the idea.
But when I studied Diepsloot Memorial Park, I found a resistance to innovation. First, there has been a slow uptake of graves because the cemetery does not meet user values and standards. Indeed, it combines both burial and leisure. Second, most participants would prefer a single body to be buried in a grave instead of multiple bodies as encouraged by the municipality. Third, the community is not in favor of using flat ground plates to make the cemetery look like a park and for easy maintenance. Finally, undertakers discourage members of the community from using the cemetery because restrictions such as the use of plaques rather than full-body memorials and upright headstones jeopardize revenue.
My research has shown that there are significant social barriers to adopting new burial methods and cemetery design.
A move towards designing 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 connection to community history.
The cultural and religious diversity of the country adds to the complexity and requires greater consultation with stakeholders.