Brixton Cemetery, where there is no fence and no security. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/ANA Pictures
Johannesburg - For nearly three years, Pule Makgale saved every cent of his hard-earned wages to buy a tombstone for his mother’s grave.

But less than a year after erecting the R30 000 headstone at Avalon Cemetery in Lenasia, the tombstone vanished without a trace.

“The whole family is still shattered by this act of immorality,” says the devastated Makgale. “It took a long time to get the tombstone up because it’s so costly. But it’s something I had to do as this is a very important part after death in that it sort of brings closure and leaves the family with consolation.”

Makgale is one of a growing number of victims of what specialist investigators describe as “tomb-ghouling” - a trend where robbers are stealing headstones from cemeteries and selling them off to willing undertakers to sell again.

Although his family wants to put in another tombstone, they fear it, too, may be stolen.

“The council charged us about a R300 levy for the erection of the tombstone.

Before we unveiled it, I made time to visit the offices at the entrance of the cemetery, asking them if it was safe to erect a tombstone,” says Makgale.

“I was told that I shouldn’t worry about security as there were guards doing regular patrols inside the cemetery. But obviously they were talking nonsense.

“I’m burning with anger at both the thieves and the council for failing to protect the cemetery. It’s very disheartening and makes one angry that there are people who make it their business to steal from the dead. It’s shameful.”

Just like Makgale, Michael Viljoen’s* family has also fallen victim to grave robbers.

They pulled together R43000 to provide an inlaid granite tombstone for his recently deceased uncle. But less than two weeks after the stone was laid at the Pretoria East cemetery in April it disappeared.

“No one can help us. The cemetery officials are scratching their heads. The police told us they would have no idea where to start (investigating),” he says.

The theft of the uninsured, hugely expensive headstone has left Viljoen’s family divided, which is why he asked The Saturday Star not to identify him by his real name.

“No one knows how we are going to replace it yet.

“What if it gets stolen again? There’s no peace. Not even in death. All we wanted was to give him grace.”

Earlier this week, Viljoen returned to the cemetery where he was promised answers about how his uncle’s headstone was stolen.

“They couldn’t tell me, or the other three families who had experienced the same thing, what had happened.”

Lawrence van Bergen, whose cousin was murdered in November last year, tells how the tombstone from his grave at a Joburg cemetery was pilfered just weeks after it had been erected.

“The family had spent a lot of money on the tombstone and are still heartbroken that it has been stolen. There is simply no respect for dead people.”

A big problem, he believes, is the lack of security at cemeteries. “I visited a number of cemeteries in Joburg and most of them haven’t been looked after. The gates have been taken down, and there is barely any security. Also, there is little or no maintenance done.”

Rose Funeral Parlour in Soweto says it is also alarmed by these robberies.

“We’ve had a number of clients come in to tell us that their beloved’s tombstones have been stolen. “It’s really sad considering the exorbitant prices people pay for tombstones,” says former top boxer Dingaan Thobela, who owns Rose Funeral Parlour.

At the Brixton Cemetery - where one side of the perimeter has no fence and other parts are in disrepair - its caretaker is unable to put a figure on how many headstones have been stolen.

“We don’t monitor the number of tombstones at the cemetery so we actually have no idea how many have gone missing,” he says.

It’s a burgeoning crime, says Mike Bolhuis, a specialist investigator. At first he was only receiving a few complaints of what he calls “tomb ghouling” every few months, but in the past six months he had received and verified about 40 separate incidents.

His informants explain that undertakers often place “orders” with criminals to steal from graveyards.

“They would be looking for a particular gravestone, and the thieves would take advantage of the general lack of security around cemeteries to steal the specified design.

“The epitaphs would then be removed and the stone sold.” While Bolhuis has confronted the undertakers fingered by his informants, the lack of evidence often means there’s little his team can do to ensure prosecution.

It’s also incredibly difficult to get CCTV footage from around many of the targeted cemeteries, with few putting in any real forms of security on the grounds, or even outside the grounds, he says.

“What we need now is statistics. There are many of these crimes that remain unreported and we need everyone to come forward. Then we can escalate this to the police or government,” says Bolhuis.

Reggie Moloi, the senior manager of cemeteries and crematoria at Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo, says it is working closely with the JMPD, SAPS and its park rangers, who patrol cemeteries regularly. “Private security deployed at the entrance to cemeteries are also conducting random searches to ensure unscrupulous stone masons are not entering the cemetery with angle grinders and generators.”

Moloi urges families that have experienced grave theft or vandalism to report it to the police. “This will ensure that these incidents are accordingly documented and that the necessary resources are deployed to combat any criminality in the city’s cemeteries.

“We’d further like to advise families to consider the installation of flat tombstones or headstones as the upright tombstones are more likely to be vandalised or damaged.”

*not real names

Saturday Star