Pressed For Space, South African City Recycles Graves

May 18, 2011

At the Umlazi cemetery on the outskirts of the South African city of Durban, Xolile Mahanjana wades through the knee-high grass. Rolling green hills extend around him and a set of power lines runs overhead. He leans forward and sweeps aside the grass with his hands, trying to locate his mother's grave.

"It was between this one and that cross over there," he says, "which means it's here."

Most of the graves here don't have headstones; there isn't much order. And, like almost all of Durban's cemeteries, it's now completely full. High death rates in South Africa have created a serious problem in some urban areas: Many cemeteries have run out of space.

So when Mahanjana arranged to have his mother buried here last year, he received quite a shock.

"When we went there to bury my mother, we can see the skeleton of someone else," he says.

So Mahanjana's mother is literally lying on top of someone else — someone that he doesn't even know.

A New Law, Born Of Necessity

A recently passed law allows the city to dig up graves that are more than 10 years old and reuse them, provided both families agree. Bones from the old grave are supposed to be put in a bag and buried deeper in the ground, so that the site appears fresh.

But Mahanjana says that when they showed up, the grave wasn't deep enough. So they started digging deeper, and came across the remains of an unknown person. He was shocked, because they weren't told they were getting a recycled grave. But he felt they had no choice, so they threw dirt on top of the skeleton and laid his mother's coffin on top.

"Our funerals cost big money," Mahanjana says. "Big, big money. So I couldn't do anything. I had to bury her there."

Death rates in South Africa have risen sharply over the last two decades, largely due to HIV. Fifty-eight of Durban's 60 cemeteries are now out of space, and Johannesburg and Cape Town expect their cemeteries to be full within 10 years.

Pepe Dass of the Durban Parks and Cemeteries division says land is scarce, and the city has to prioritize things like agriculture and housing for the city's booming population.

"The demand now to actually house that growing population will take a priority over burying them," Dass says. "That's the bottom line."

Religious Reservations

But some citizens are strongly opposed to the policy.

Lwasi Ntombela, a community organizer who has actively campaigned against grave recycling, says tampering with the dead is taboo in Zulu culture.

"For us, the grave is a very sacred place" Ntombela says. "We believe ... that the people who are dead are the people who are angels for us, who communicate with the Almighty."

The Nazareth Baptist Church, of which Mahanjana is a member, opposes both cremation and grave recycling on religious grounds. Mahanjana says his faith informs the way he sees the dead.

"If I put my father or my mother into a grave, that's their house," he says. "They are are not dead, they are alive; it's just that we do not see them."

The South African government is now trying to determine if grave recycling is a violation of religious freedoms — a right strongly protected in South Africa's constitution. Dass, of the Parks and Cemeteries division, says he hopes his department can find common ground with religious and cultural groups.

"We need to be able to find a balance, you know, in terms of those issues — those cultural, very important issues — and the way we actually live," he says.

Back in the Umlazi cemetery, Mahanjana stands over his mother's grave. A heavy rain begins to fall. He didn't get her a headstone, because he's hoping to have the body exhumed and moved to a new location.

Whether or not he'll be able to find a new space remains to be seen. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit