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History told in graves Print E-mail
05 January 2012

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There are 35 cemeteries under the control of City Parks, all of which help to archive the rich history of the city of gold.

CEMETERIES carry a rich history, told through their graves, memorial gardens, memorial walls, mausoleums and crematoria. And as with many cities, Joburg’s history can be traced through its 35 burial grounds, which date back to 1888, just after gold was discovered on the reef.

Several struggle heroes are laid to rest at Avalon CemeterySeveral struggle heroes are laid to rest at Avalon CemeteryJohannesburg City Parks is responsible for preserving and maintaining open green spaces in the city; this includes its cemeteries, which are green lungs as well. The conservation, upkeep and maintenance of cemeteries and crematoria are a dedicated business at the entity, and extensive care is given to these places of rest.

In all, City Parks is responsible for more than 2 138 parks, street verges, nature reserves and developed and undeveloped green belts, along with the 35 cemeteries and three crematoria. The approach to cemeteries has changed over the decades. Their design and landscaping has become more organic, with the natural order taking over from the neat rows of graves of yesteryear.

“Today, City Parks regards cemeteries as areas of remembrance to honour the deceased,” it says. “Cemeteries provide opportunities to create green footprints within urban belts. This approach to cemetery design creates spaces where people can remember their dead in the comfort of natural settings.”

They are referred to as “cemeteries for the living” by City Parks in its handbook, Cemeteries and Crematoria, and have been designed with sensitivity.

“Looking after cemeteries and crematoria requires being part historian, part archival records keeper, in addition to being a developer of cemetery grounds, designer and landscaper and maintainer of grounds and graves,” reads the handbook.
“To preserve the place of public burials is to help remember the passing of those who rest there.”

New grounds
There is also something of the future in it too, though. It takes years to receive approval for grounds for new cemeteries to be established, and City Parks must take into account the mortality rate and burial trends when planning cemeteries.

The Braamfontein CrematoriumThe Braamfontein CrematoriumEnvironmental assessments and impact studies also have to be carried out and communities need to be consulted.
Cemeteries in outlying areas have not been neglected by City Parks, and they now are filled with trees and roads, making getting to graves easier.

In 2007, 26 of Joburg’s cemeteries were declared passive, which means that there is no new burial space. Second and third burials can take place, but only about 12 years after the previous burial. A variety of other options are available, such as cremation, memorial walls, gardens of remembrance and reduction burials, whereby after a number of years, the remains are reburied in smaller coffins.

“The legacy, for [City Parks], continues to honour those who have passed before us, by creating green, treed havens within the city, where the living can preserve their memories into the future,” reads the handbook.

“To walk the cemeteries of Johannesburg is to explore the city’s own history. The pioneering farmers, the city’s founders, the heroes, the fallen, the striking miners, the Boer concentration camp victims, Christians, Muslims, Jews and other, all equal in the earth.”

History
That history goes back to a Sunday in 1886. On a wide savannah grassland, an English mason named George Harrison, who had had much experience as a gold digger in Australia, stumbled on an outcrop of lichen-covered rock. He crushed a sample, panned it and knew he had found gold. He had discovered the Main Reef.

Almost overnight the grasslands became a mushrooming tent town, drawing fortune seekers from far and wide. It quickly grew into a town and then into a city.

“Just as it was born, Johannesburg is a place beginnings, of eloquent rises and dramatic history, carrying the stories of many in its graveyards and cemeteries,” says City Parks in its handbook.

Alan BuffAlan Buff is City Parks' technical support manager and horticulturistThe first burial grounds – when the region was still agricultural – were farm cemeteries for farmers and their workers; some of these still exist.

But as the town grew, burial grounds were required. The first cemetery was established between Bree, Diagonal and Harrison streets in what is today the CBD. It had a short life as the town quickly outgrew its boundaries. The remains of those buried in the original town cemetery were later exhumed and reinterred in 1987, notes City Parks.

By 1888, the first regional cemetery, Braamfontein Cemetery, had been marked out. Other cemeteries also arose under the control of churches, hospitals and mines. “For those who were non-conformist, it was a struggle to find a place to be buried, and the town took over the handling of their burial sites.”

War
And as war broke out and more graves were required. “The Anglo Boer War fully occupied the country from 1899 to 1902, and during that time many thousands of Boers died in concentration camps, including one placed in Turffontein Racecourse. Today many of them are buried in Suideroord, in seven coffin-shaped grave areas.”

But it wasn’t until 1907 that cemeteries were placed under the jurisdiction of the municipality, notes City Parks. The change came during a town council meeting.

The parks and estates committee reported: “The Parks Department has, since its inception in 1904, been a sub-department of the Town Engineer’s Department. We are of opinion, that, owing to the increase in the volume of work in connection with the Parks (which included cemeteries), the time has now arrived for the formation of a separated Department of Parks. We have issued instructions accordingly.”

Aids activist Nkosi Johnson's grave at West Park CemeteryAids activist Nkosi Johnson's grave at West Park CemeteryAccording to the parks department records, expenditure on parks during that period amounted to £3 222,47 (approximately R3-million in today’s terms). There was one cemetery under the control of the town engineer, and weekly burials averaged 50 a week – 22 white and 28 coloured.

As the town continued to grow, so too did the death rate. By 1905, it was estimated that the Braamfontein Cemetery would be fully occupied within 20 months. Three years later, a new cemetery was established an 84-acre (about 34ha) portion of land in Brixton. That year there were 3 410 burials.

Up until that time, the town had 20 parks, varying in size from less than one acre (about 4 047m2) to 289 acres, and two cemeteries.

New Cemetery
On 1 October 1910, the first grave was dug in the New Cemetery in Brixton; Braamfontein was nearly full. “No one could imagine that Johannesburg would continue to grow at the pace that it has, continuing to be a challenge for town planners even today,” says City Parks in its handbook.

At the time, mourners wanted different locations for each religion. A Jewish section was established, adjacent to the Muslim section. Just outside those sections were places for Chinese, blacks, military, firemen, policemen, and many more religious divisions.

According to City Parks, cemeteries were laid out in European fashion, with long rows of graves alongside straight roads, divided into even sections. “The graves of soldiers who were buried in Braamfontein during the Anglo Boer War periods were laid out in the lawn and ribbon flower beds, on the same patterns as the war cemeteries in Europe.”

In the early 1900s, Mahatma Gandhi approached the town council on behalf of the Hindu community to construct a crematorium, which was built in 1918 in the northwestern corner of the Brixton Cemetery. By 1956, a new crematorium was built adjacent to the old crematorium. The old one is now a national monument.

CrematingMany people are taking to cremation as burial space dwindlesA crematorium was opened in Braamfontein in 1932 at a cost of £9 000 (about R6,1-million in today’s terms). “The demand for cremations was greater than could be met by a single furnace and it was proposed to provide for an additional furnace.”

Cremations at the Braamfontein Cemetery in a year rose to 481 and burials totalled 6 196, and the need for new burial grounds continued to grow. The council bought land on Farm Waterval for a new cemetery, and by 1942 West Park Cemetery had opened.

Its first burial took place on 10 February 1942; in that year there were 6 603 burials in the four cemeteries. There were also 641 cremations in the Braamfontein crematorium and 25 at the Hindu crematorium in Brixton Cemetery.

By 1952, the space for memorials on the walls at the crematorium was fully used up and it was decided that flanking of the pathway would be done in the Garden of Remembrance.

Apartheid
“The development of cemeteries echoed Johannesburg’s own apartheid history,” notes the City Parks handbook.

The Chinese sectionThe Chinese section at Newclare Cemetery“Cemeteries came to be developed along racial lines, with Asian and coloured cemeteries in Newclare, Brixton and Lenasia, and so-called native cemeteries in Alexandra and Soweto.”

Some 108 acres of land was acquired in the southwest of the city for the “Asiatic, Euro-African and Native” cemetery – today called the Newclare Cemetery. It holds the graves of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, the former struggle icons, and the Walter Sisulu Memorial Garden.

It was necessary: parks department reports from the time state: “The Bantu section is now filled up and this cemetery is now the only one in the city catering for coloureds and the various Asiatic groups.”

Then, in 1972, the Avalon Cemetery, south of the CBD, was established. It is more than 172 hectares in size, making it the second largest in the city. It is also the busiest.

Avalon holds the remains of many heroes of the struggle against apartheid, including the former general secretary of the South African Communist Party and former Umkhonto we Sizwe chief of staff, Joe Slovo, and the women’s struggle leaders, Helen Joseph and Lillian Ngoyi.

During the 1976 student uprising, the building holding the burial records for Nancefield, Soweto’s first cemetery, was burned and all those records were lost.

Heroes’ Acre
Prior to democracy, heroes’ burials were confined to state presidents and prime ministers, who received state funerals.

War MemorialsA war memorial at Brixton CemeteryThose who died in defending the country or in the line of duty were recognised and interred in a military, police or firemen’s grave.

Then, in 1995, the former Soweto Council approved a Heroes Acre at Avalon Cemetery and a portion of Section B was set aside for this. A Heroes Acre, according to City Parks, is “an expression of the collective will of the people to write their own history. This space arouses national consciousness, forges national unity and engenders a spirit of patriotism.”

In most cases, a hero is a person who has died for his or her country. “Individuals can be classified as heroes when placing their lives at risk in safeguarding other people or by great feats of courage, or by being recognised for special achievement in a particular field.”

Many cities around the world have cemeteries set aside with gardens of remembrance or memorial parks. These usually include war graves, military graves and other memorials, City Parks adds.

Besides the Heroes Acre at Avalon, there is a High Profile Area at West Park Cemetery, with more in the pipeline for the future, adds City Parks.

Over the years, many more cemeteries came under the parks department, amounting to the 35 cemeteries and two crematoria that now fall under the custody of City Parks. The crematorium at the Brixton Cemetery is under the control of the Hindu community.

“Cemeteries today are no longer developed on racial lines, yet history of old still remains,” the entity says.

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