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Johannesburg - The Braamfontein Crematorium, the oldest in the city, has been hit by thieves or vandals who have badly damaged the wall of remembrance.
The ashes of loved ones, contained in plastic bags, have been tossed to the ground and stone plaques covering graves have been ripped out in a mass desecration of the Braamfontein Cemetery’s columbarium - a vault with niches to store funeral urns.
The shocking discovery was made this week by former Joburg councillor Rees Mann when he visited the wall to pay his respects to a deceased family member.
The sight of discarded ashes, broken plastic packets and smashed stonework left him reeling.
Mann discovered that a number of the granite plaques covering the niches in which the ashes were stored, bearing the deceased’s names, had been ripped off the wall.
Mann said he was shocked at the insensitivity and disrespect of the people who did this.
“There were plastic bags containing ashes on the ground. Some were broken and there were loose ashes blowing in the wind and rain. I was horrified. I don’t know how this could have happened as there are security guards on the premises,” he said.
He speculated whether the damage was the work of Satanists or random vandals, hoping to find precious items or valuables stored together with the ashes.
“They should have been collected and stored for the dignity of the deceased. Even if the owners cannot be traced, the ashes should be put away for safekeeping somewhere,” he said.
City Parks and Zoo acting general manager of cemeteries Alan Buff was not aware of the vandalism and said he would investigate immediately.
Ashes, however, are kept in marked plastic bags so they would be able to be identified. “We will collect them, re-mark and record them, and place them in our columbarium under the crematorium where they will be safe while we contact the families. This is the first time in about eight or nine years that this has happened,” he said.
People generally store the ashes in plastic bags. However, some ashes were held in small urns or wooden boxes, so this could also be the motive for the break-in, he said. Cemeteries were also being randomly targeted by “dodgy” stonemasons who were stealing and recycling tombstones, said Buff.
“We have taken steps, with the help of private security guards, our park rangers, SAPS and JMPD to contain the problem by increasing the number of foot patrols in some cemeteries… Several stonemasons who have been stealing tombstones from cemeteries have been identified,” he said.
City Parks registered cases with the police and blacklisted one stonemason, with more who are caught recycling headstones to follow.
Two others have been caught in the act, but are claiming that they removed the headstones for maintenance and repairs.
“While the liability and onus of the maintenance and safeguarding of tombstones is the responsibility of the family, Joburg City Parks urges mourners and visitors to the cemetery to remain vigilant, take down the registration number of vehicles they see which look suspect and report it to the SAPS and the security staff at the entrance of the cemetery,” said Buff, adding that cemeteries were places of sanctity.
Another battle which City Parks is fighting is the theft of fences around cemeteries, particularly in Braamfontein. “As we repair and replace them, they are stolen. We are fighting a losing battle, but we are working with security companies in the area,” he said.