Johannesburg - Just a stone’s throw away from the gravesites of Struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada and musician Hugh Masekela, a huge granite structure stands tall at Westpark Cemetery, north of Joburg.
The shining structure - one of the first mausoleums to be built at Joburg’s 37 municipal cemeteries - towers above the hundreds of thousands of in-ground tombstones at Westpark.
Several wreaths have been placed on top while the names of the dead have been engraved into the granite.
It was built several months ago. The other mausoleum at Joburg’s municipal cemeteries is housed at Panorama Cemetery in Roodepoort.
While mausoleums like these have never been popular in Joburg, that may change now that Joburg’s burial space is increasingly running out.
A month ago, the City of Joburg appealed to residents to consider cremation or building mausoleums instead of burying their loved ones because of the environmental impact of gravesites.
Only four of Joburg’s 37 municipal cemeteries have burial space left, with the rest filled to capacity.
The City of Joburg partnered with a private service provider to build a new mausoleum in Westpark in the hope that residents will consider alternative burial options.
“This is just a pilot project for us,” explains Reggie Moloi, Joburg City Parks senior manager for cemeteries and crematoria, standing alongside the mausoleum.
“We want to test the waters and see whether our residents would be willing to consider options like mausoleums when interring their loved ones.”
Moloi knows well that the use of mausoleums may not be first choice for many.
“Above-the-ground burials are still taboo to our people, and many people still don’t trust that once they leave their dearly departed their that the body will be safe.
“Also certain religions do not allow the use of mausoleums as a burial option so that is another thing to consider.”
Moloi, who has headed Joburg’s municipal cemeteries and crematoria for several years, says the utility has met local undertakers to ask them to help promote the use of mausoleums.
“We have two forums a year where we meet up with undertakers and discuss important issues. One of the things we spoke about was the use of mausoleums.
“We’re promoting the use of mausoleums through the undertakers, because when there is a death, the first port of call is the undertaker. So we hope they can help us promote the use of mausoleums.”
While there is enough burial space left in Joburg for the next 50 to 70 years, it’s important that the city finds solutions to make cemeteries in Joburg more sustainable.
“We’re asking residents to rethink how we inter our loved ones, and to try to do it differently without compromising cultural requirements while simultaneously taking away the burden from future generations of caring for dormant cemeteries that are full and that are managed at high costs to ratepayers in our cities.
“Joburg is a high migration area, and people come in from the rest of Africa and the world. At the last count we were sitting at 4.5 million people in Joburg, but as of the last week when the mayor was doing the IDP (Integrated Development Planning) in Lenasia, the figure was 5.05 million so it’s increasing.
“As a person responsible for the cemeteries in the city of Joburg, one of my jobs is to see if we have sufficient space, so planning way in advance is important.”
Moloi says the use of mausoleums is extremely beneficial and environmentally safe.
“They do it in such a way that each time a body enters a mausoleum, it has to be embalmed properly, and we also use charcoal to ensure that all the fluids that are released from the body when it is decomposing get absorbed.
“We also use a ventilation system to allow stuff like acid gas to be released. So everything is environmentally compliant.”
Mausoleums may help alleviate the city’s housing problem, too.
“There are acres of space that remain untouched because the land is too rocky and so in-ground burials are not a possibility.
"The use of mausoleums will allow us to use the space we have instead of having to build more cemeteries. The reality is that the same land that cemeteries require is the same land that is suitable for housing.
“The city has a choice to make, and there are more of the living than the dying and so people need housing. Hence the space in cemeteries is fast diminishing because housing is a priority.”
Another benefit of mausoleums is that residents are able to pre-book crypts (burial spots built to hold a casket in a mausoleum) whereas with in-ground burials this isn’t possible.
“Families can buy as many crypts as they need in advance so that when a family member passes on they have space. With conventional in-ground burial we don’t allow reservations If our space is fast running out, we cannot sell land in advance.”
However, the price of mausoleums can be costly for families.
“Mausoleums can be a bit expensive due to the way they are constructed. However, we as the city do not have costs yet.
“People who bury in mausoleums pay the cemetery fee, and normal tariff, because we as city have nothing to do with the mausoleums currently.”
Should mausoleums grow in popularity in Joburg, he says, the city will consider building several others in the already established 37 cemeteries around Joburg.
“We have given residents a few options like the re-openings of family graves as well as cremations and the use of mausoleums.
“Currently 25% of burials in Joburg are made up of re-usable graves and so we’re really pleased with that. Should residents show an interest in using mausoleums, we'll definitely build more in the city.”
Using alternative burial methods will make a huge difference to the City of Joburg, he believes.
And Moloi, too, is open to the idea. “My family have asked me whether I would consider alternative burial options.
“If I have the option of being buried in the same grave as my granny who is buried in Doornkop, I would do that. If there isn’t that option I would be happy to buy a space in a mausoleum. It wouldn’t be fair for me to be promoting something that I don’t believe in.”
The Saturday Star