July 29, 2004
South Africa 'Recycles' Graves for AIDS Victims
DURBAN, South Africa, July 23 - At S Cemetery in Umlazi Township, Innocent Gasa's handiwork is everywhere: endless mounds of fresh red earth topped with headstones, unpainted wooden crosses, or, for the most miserable, bricks bearing a painted identifying number. Mr. Gasa has dug graves on this lumpy, unkempt, Halloween-spooky hilltop for two years now, five holes a week, 52 weeks a year, well over 500 holes in all.
Which may seem peculiar, seeing as S Cemetery exhausted its last space for new graves five years ago. City records sum up its status succinctly, even dismissively: "Full."
But in Durban, "full'' is a term of art. This city is being battered by an AIDS pandemic so sweeping that people are dying faster than the city can find space to bury them. And so gravediggers like Mr. Gasa are reopening existing graves - the city calls it "recycling'' - and interring fresh bones atop the old ones.
The job gives Mr. Gasa nightmares. "I think it is not a good thing, to take out the bones'' for reburial, he said during a break in his spadework. "But we have no choice."
Every time southern Africa's AIDS epidemic threatens to exhaust its store of superlatives, some new, sobering extreme rises to the fore. The latest is Durban, where 51 of the 53 municipal cemeteries are officially filled to capacity, and a surging death rate threatens to overwhelm the remaining two within a couple of years.
"Five years ago, we used to have about 120 funerals a weekend, but this number has now jumped to 600," Thembinkosi Ngcobo, who heads the municipal department of parks and cemeteries, said in an interview this week. "In order to cope with the current rate of mortality - we hope it is not going to increase - we will need to have 12.1 hectares every year of new gravesites."
That is nearly 30 acres. "That would obviously turn Durban and the whole country into one big graveyard if we continue," he said.
The statistics offer little encouragement. Roughly one in eight South Africans is H.I.V.-positive, and in Durban, South Africa's third-largest city with about 3.5 million people, a survey two years ago of women at pregnancy clinics found about 35 percent were infected with H.I.V.
The city held a conference on the cemetery problem this month and discovered that a host of other South African graveyards - in Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth - are also filling up at alarming rates.
Durban's space crunch, says Mr. Ngcobo, defies a quick or simple solution.
Cremation, cheaper and space-saving, is an obvious option - and an untenable one for many of the ethnic Zulus who make up seven in 10 Durbanites. "It is not good to burn the bones in Zulu culture," Mr. Gasa, the gravedigger, explained. "Your ancestors are unhappy."
Mr. Ngcobo's office is campaigning to change the cultural bias against cremation, even visiting schools to argue that it can coexist with the Zulus' complex funeral rituals and their deep reverence for the dead. But success so far is limited; in five years, the share of Zulu burials by cremation has doubled - to 2 percent.
Recycling is but a temporary solution: many apartheid-era graveyards once set aside for blacks are in poor or boggy soil and are unsuited for their existing burials, much less additions. No grave can be recycled for at least 10 years, the span needed to reduce a corpse to bones, and survivors can prevent a grave from being reused at all by renewing their lease on the burial site.
In practice, Mr. Ngcobo said, most families consent to recycling only under financial duress: using someone else's grave costs 320 rand, or about $53, while acquiring a new gravesite at Red Hill Cemetery, one of the two still open, costs about $250. Families also resist interring a loved one with anyone except a close relative.
Even then, he said, there are problems: some survivors claim that the departed speak to them in dreams, complaining, for instance, that their bunkmates have pushed them so close to the surface that they get wet when it rains.
Durban could also build new cemeteries, and, indeed, the city is negotiating to buy a 100-acre site to do just that. But it costs at least $1.25 million to build a graveyard, and more to maintain it in perpetuity, money the city does not have. And those 100 acres will last only three and a half years.
A deliberate man, Mr. Ngcobo says that simple economics will eventually lead families to the logical solution, cremation. "It's not uncommon in a family to bury, say, three people a year, and it is becoming very expensive,'' he said. "On average a funeral costs 15,000 rand" - close to a year's average income. Cremation costs 375 rand.
He could be a highways official contemplating the effect of toll roads on traffic density. But when he talks about how the rising death toll has affected his own life, it is clear that he is anything but detached.
"You are now required to go to funerals every weekend," he said. "At times, you go to funerals for eight weekends nonstop. At times, you have two a day, so you have to divide the family up so that one can go to one funeral, and one to the other. If you live in a neighborhood, you are sure to feel it."
Facts and figures do not do justice to Durban's plight. For that, only visits to S Cemetery, which serves one of Durban's most destitute neighborhoods, and Red Hill Cemetery, one of the two municipal graveyards still open, will do.
Opened in 1996, Red Hill was supposed to last 15 years. Mr. Ngcobo now estimates that it will be full in 10. No one who walks Red Hill's rows of recent burials, heap after heap of dirt blowing slowly away in the Indian Ocean breeze, can fail to be sobered by the havoc AIDS is wreaking here.
Yet it is not the number of graves that stops a visitor cold, but their markers. Some of the dead are remembered with only a sheet of paper, shielded from the elements by plastic wrap, listing names, dates of birth and dates of death. For many more, the only record is a few strips of plastic tape, imprinted by a mortuary's label-maker and glued to a tiny plate.
At S Cemetery, the 37-year-old caretaker, Anton Khumalo, bends over a succession of markers and ticks off the ages of the dead: 31; 20; 38; 39; 26; 29;35; 31. "Most of the people - maybe this one - are 18 to 30," he says, peering at one marker. "You hear from the relatives that they died of AIDS. They're not ashamed. They say: 'Our kids don't listen. That's why they died.' ''
Mr. Gasa, the gravedigger, nods when asked whether any of his friends have died from AIDS-related diseases. "Too many," he says. "I can't count them. Too many."
Cemeteries here are all but deserted on weekdays. But as the sun peaks overhead at S Cemetery, Judith Dlamoni and her granddaughter, 4-year-old Phmelele, pass through the rusted gate to visit the grave of Phmelele's mother and Ms. Dlamoni's daughter, Gutulethu Dlamoni.
Gutulethu Dlamoni died last October at 25 after traditional healers failed to cure her. Her husband, an ex-convict, does not live nearby. Judith Dlamoni, 73, unemployed, divorced and broke, is now the sole support of a 4-year-old.
At Red Hill, the only visitor is Siyada Tlatla, 22, who is building a block wall around the grave of his uncle, Phumalani Mkhwanaze. Mr. Mkhwanaze, he says, "was into sport, very into sport.''
"Cross country,'' he adds. "He ran marathons."
Mr. Mkhwanaze left a wife and a 1-year-old son. "He got sick," the nephew says, not needing to say more.
He was 28.