Two Bodies in One Grave

Sibongile Mpofu

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – Jul 2007

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The phrase, “till death do us part”, used for centuries in matrimony to cement love between two people could soon be adapted if a proposal by the Bulawayo municipality to bury deceased couples in one grave is accepted.

The municipality of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, is planning to launch an awareness campaign to encourage families to consider burying more than one body in a single grave, preferably deceased couples that were married.  According to proposals, the period between the couple’s deaths does not matter; they will simply inter the body of the most recently deceased on top of the former.

The idea would enable the municipality to recycle graves and cater for as many burials as possible before city cemeteries run out of space.

Graves, in many African societies are sacred and when a body is buried it is usual for family members to undertake traditional rites and customs as a means of maintaining spiritual closeness with their departed loved one.  Therefore in some quarters, tampering with the gravesite and digging it up to bury another body is seen as unwelcome interference.

However, faced with increasing need for land both for residential and commercial expansion, councils are finding it difficult to meet demand.  The advent of HIV/AIDS has made the situation worse.  The epidemic which is often associated with tuberculosis and other opportunistic infections has been the major contributory factor of the increasing number of deaths in the country.

According to latest city council records, deaths continue increasing with 578 burials in April while 672 cases were recorded in May.  This has resulted in major problems where burial space has been used up, thus forcing the municipality to find alternative solutions.  Earlier in the year there were reports that cemeteries in the country’s capital, ‘Harare’, were fast filling up due to the increased number of deaths, forcing authorities to seek alternatives to conventional burials.

Zimbabwe is not alone in this plight; a new culture of alternatives to traditional burials is emerging across Southern Africa where the AIDS pandemic is taking its toll. According to the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Southern Africa remains the epicentre of the global HIV epidemic. 32 percent of people living with HIV globally live in this sub-region and 34 percent of AIDS deaths globally occur there.

In Durban, South Africa, the number of weekly deaths has risen to over 600, up from about 150 in 2002.Another of the options that councils have presented to people is the idea of cremation, however this is yet to have any meaningful impact.  It will take a long time to convince society to utilize cremation because the concept of death is seen as a process of transformation from one form to another, therefore tampering with a dead body is taboo.

Debating on the issue during a full council meeting last week, some Bulawayo councillors and the Executive Mayor, Mr Japhet Ndabeni-Ncube were of the view that residents should either adopt the cremation concept or bury deceased couples in one grave.

“There is an increase in the number deaths and we are running out of burial space.  I know our society has reservations about the matter, but we should come up with an educational programme on the advantages of this method,” said Councillor Stars Mathe of Cowdray Park.

The proposal, has however, sparked controversy with traditionalists saying this is against our culture and beliefs and it detracts from the sanctity of death. 

“People are still finding it hard to cremate bodies as it is against African culture and this new idea of putting two bodies in one grave is equally against our culture,” said traditionalist Nomazwe Ngwenya.

Alderman Charles Mpofu opposed the idea of multiple burials and suggested that people be buried in their rural homes. “We are Africans, in our society, cremations and dual burials are taboo. Let us learn to be buried at our rural homes,” he said.  But with the high cost of transport, people in the urban areas have resorted to burying their loved ones in the cities instead of in their rural homes.

Other religious groups believe now is the time for traditions to change in view of the changing times.  Mr Vakayil Damodar said while in Hindu culture cremations used to be done using the Mango tree, this has changed over the years with many followers accepting electrical cremation.  This change was necessitated by environmental consideration and increasing rural-urban migration.  “There are many environmental benefits of cremating and I think cultures should support it,” he said.

With more people succumbing to the deadly HIV/AIDS virus on a daily basis, society needs to take a bold step and dialogue with municipalities to establish a means of resolving the shortage of burial space.  Resisting the options proposed without coming up with suggestions on the way forward does not help the situation.