Cape Town - Bones believed to be human remains have been unearthed during a construction project in the Parys Cemetery in Paarl, sparking a police investigation into the possible desecration of graves.
Municipal workers tasked with clearing a section of the Parys Cemetery as part of an innovative grave recycling initiative to address the dire shortage of gravesites in the Drakenstein municipality were spooked after they recently discovered bones while clearing the trees and vegetation.
Confirming that the bones were found while the portion of land was being cleared by workers, municipal manager Johann Mettler stressed that “no marked graves were exhumed in the cemetery”.
Mettler said that as the process of cleaning of the land began, it was found that there were graves that did not meet the required depth for graves as stipulated by law. The municipality believes these graves may have been old paupers’ graves.
But local resident Desmond Andrews accused the municipality of flattening his father’s grave and building a new road over the section where his relatives were buried.
Andrews reported the matter to the police about two weeks ago after he discovered bones and coffin parts lying next to three graves.
The local municipality vehemently denies the claim.
“No graves were flattened. The area that was overgrown with vegetation and trees was cleared. In cases where families did come to the fore in search of graves, they were assisted and the graves kept and clearly marked,” Mettler said.
Andrews said his mother wanted to be buried in the same grave as her husband and he approached the municipality in this regard.
“To my shocking surprise I found my father’s grave had been flattened and a road build in its place. This dispute has been coming on since last year and the municipality has been ducking and diving,” he said.
“I’ve sent letters and have their responses but they are lying. They’ve never asked our permission and they claim that my father’s grave is intact.”
Andrews said the graves of some of his other relatives were also affected.
Confirming the police investigation, police spokesman Colonel Tembinkosi Kinana said: “Police opened a case of violation of the grave for investigation. No arrest was made.”
Explaining the development at the gravesite Mettler said the executive mayoral committee of the previous, ANC-run municipal council was informed about the critical shortage of land for cemeteries in the Drakenstein area as far back as 2008.
“Several proposals were put on the table… including the option of recycling graves,” he said.
Grave recycling involves the re-use of a grave after a period of 20 years or more. The human remains are either removed and placed elsewhere or reburied deeper in the same grave.
According to Mettler, a public participation process kicked off in January 2010 to get public opinion on the matter, which included sending out press releases calling on the public to participate in the process.
“The very next month the mayoral committee approved the proposal to recycle graves older than 50 years and to expand the Parys Cemetery in Paarl,” he added.
Local priest and community leader Jeff Africa said the community was outraged after learning about the remains.
“What the municipality did is very arrogant; they did not properly consult the people. Putting up notices at the municipal offices and in some newspapers is just not good enough,” he said.
“What about those who cannot read or write?”