Cape Town’s shortage of grave space is creating gaps for the savvy as US-style “lawn park” cemeteries hit South Africa.
A large landscaped cemetery, being built on the outskirts of Durbanville by a group of businessmen, will open in December.
The 20ha Durbanville Memorial Park, which has space for 40 000 graves, will be quite different to any other cemetery in the city.
It will look like a park – complete with lakes, fountains, bridges and landscaped beds of flowers.
It will also have strict security, with 24-hour guards and a 2.4m-high wall.
“It offers flexibility and security,” said Pierre Steyn, the man behind the cemetery. “Security is the one thing we don’t have in South Africa. People will be able to visit at any time, and not worry about being mugged.”
It was Steyn’s idea to build the multimillion-rand cemetery with a park-like atmosphere. It has taken four years to plan.
The cost for a family grave, which can take up to three people, is R4 500 – some of which goes to a cemetery maintenance fund.
“I foresaw the need for new cemeteries in Cape Town,” Steyn said. “It’s at crisis point now.”
A private cemetery in Strand went bankrupt years ago, but in 1990 a private cemetery, Eden Memorial Garden, was opened in Ottery.
Millicent Tlhapane, owner of Eden Memorial Garden, said the cemetery was costly to develop but customers were drawn to it because of the park-like atmosphere and the fact that it was better maintained than council-owned cemeteries.
The council’s 31 cemeteries are rapidly running out of space. A report to the council’s planning and environment portfolio committee this month estimated that space would run out in by June 2006.
Not since the 1880s has there been such a graves crisis, said Alan Morris, a physical anthropologist at the University of Cape Town’s medical school, of the time when the Somerset Road cemeteries in Green Point approached capacity.
The solution to that problem was to build the Woltemade Cemetery in Maitland, then on the outskirts of Cape Town, complete with its own train station.
The council is also struggling with the costs of maintaining the existing cemeteries, said Peter Delahunt, the city parks manager co-ordinating cemeteries.
Finding new land is a difficult business because much of Cape Town’s land is unsuitable for burials because of the high water table.
One idea Delahunt is exploring is to combine conservation with new cemeteries. The council could “bank” land for future burial use, let nature have its way until then, and return the cemetery to nature when it was full.
South Africa has followed British and European graveyard traditions in that it has church graveyards or cemeteries built on the outskirts of towns, with landscaping receiving little thought.
Privately owned cemeteries that look like vast parks began in the US in the 1850s.
“This is a major mind-set shift,” said Morris. “The fundamental concept is that this should be a piece of heaven on Earth and not just a place where you bury people.
“In a big American cemetery, you ask yourself: ‘Am I in a cemetery’?”
Such cemeteries could be situated up to 30km from a town. One often needs a map to find a particular grave.
“It’s a different way of thinking about death,” said Steven Heynes, chairman of the regional arm of the National Funeral Directors’ Association. “If you bury people in large parks out of the city, the dead are removed from you and you make a day of it when you go visit them,” explained Morris. “If you bury your dead in a churchyard the dead are with you all the time.”
Heynes said it was difficult to predict whether US-style cemeteries would take off in South Africa.
People wanted something secure, he said, where remembrance walls and headstones would not be vandalised and where they could take their families.
Heynes said cremations were becoming more popular in Cape Town among coloured and white people but not among black residents.