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Making space for the dead

Harare cemeteries are overcrowding - many are calling for green burials Supplied Harare cemeteries are overcrowding - many are calling for green burials

Green graves option

Derick Matsengarwodzi


Harare – The business of burying the dead has become an expensive option for ordinary Zimbabwean residents as overpopulated cities with a high death toll from HIV/Aids, among other illnesses, all fight for space.


People migrating to cities in search of work has contributed to increasingly overcrowded cemeteries. The City of Harare Council has four active cemeteries – the other five are closed. The vacant ones are filling up at alarming rates. Death rates in Harare hovers around 10 000. Burial space cost around $100 depending with location. 


Deaths rates are escalating, housing waiting lists ballooning, and options to decent, eco-friendly burials are now more urgent than before. 145 000 new applicants were added to the City of Harare housing waiting list in 2014 – an alarming 262 percent upsurge during the prior year.


The call for green graves and moving away from traditional burial has been made, with activists arguing that traditional cemeteries become plots of land are devoid of any other  use but pose significant environmental risks.


Environmentalists argue that chemicals used in embalming and the creation of elaborate traditional caskets introduce dangerous toxins to the environment, as well as leave behind non-biodegradable materials like the plaques or ornaments that often adorn caskets.


The four active cemeteries in Harare, are namely Granville A and B popularly referred to as kuMbudzi, Mabvuku and Warren Hills. Recently, the latter has been closed to the public due to lack of space and it will take time and hefty resources to develop the virgin uphill land still available in the cemetery.


“The irony is land is becoming accessible in death than when someone is alive. It has become impossible and sometimes politicised,” Sheila Dzimba, a political activist reasoned. She argues there was enough evidence to show that traditional burial of digging graves is eating up space and resources.


Like most countries in Africa, Zimbabwe is characterised by rapid population growth and will need more space for housing and other development activities in the future. The challenge of burial space shortages is not limited to Zimbabwe. In 2015, Zambia’s capital city Lusaka faced a problem of shortage of burial space.


Faced with such grim reality, the discussion on substitutes to physical interments was now urgent, according to Harare town planner, Edmore Sangazi.


 “Land reserved for development is being taken by burial sites. Considering the high rates of deaths, we run the risk of losing more land to non-development projects.  In most cases, the land is not used and remains idle, while needs for land escalates, thereby depriving much needed agriculture and growth," said Sangazi.  


Environmentalist Silas Mangove said: “Conversation burial can reduce the impact of burial on the environment. It can reconnect people with nature. Traditional burial rites don’t allow any land use after burial.”   


Green burials return one’s remains to the earth, as directly and simply as possible. The practice avoids coffins and embalming often associated with modern burials. But “defilement or improper handling of the dead is not only a crime, but such actions might be viewed as witchcraft,” Lovemore Kadawo, an elderly traditional activist warns.    


Religious leaders have been drawn into the discussion – and they offer deviating views around the option of cremation.


In some cultures, cremation is not an option as they believe the dead become the living dead.   


“The issue of green graves is a health compromise for traditionalists,” says Apostle Sibiya, a prominent church leader. 


“In the African tradition, the dead don’t cease to live – they become the living dead, while the living values the place of burial. A grave becomes a home, not a gravesite and they also visit the grave to maintain it. When a person dies they graduate into a spiritual realm,” said Sibiya. 


During cremation, high temperature burning, vaporisation and oxidation reduce dead bodies to basic chemical compounds such as gasses and mineral fragments to retain the appearance of dry bone. 


On the other hand, the Muslim community firmly considers cremation practice as “blasphemy”. Social commentator Musa Linyama said. “Burying two bodies in one grave is unlawful. Even if I make such a will in my last testament, sadly, it will not be fulfilled.”  


While diverging cultures are headed for a lasting conflict, land is not increasing by an inch – compromises on new burial arrangements have to be reached soon rather than later.   


Last modified onTuesday, 01 November 2016 11:44