Although burial was the usual mode of disposal of the body of the dead in early times, cremation has gradually been replacing it as the preferred method. In religious such as Judaism and Islam, however, there is still a preference for burial.
Cremation was brought from the East to the Mediterranean basin in about 2500-2000 BC. The two methods -- burial and cremation -- continued to be used in tandem until Christianity became dominant. Although there are cremations recorded in the Torah, Jews have always preferred to bury their dead and seldom cremate.
The reasons why cremation is gaining favour in recent times is unclear. Neither land wastage nor sanitary considerations are considered as likely factors. In more recent times, many churches have relaxed their views on cremation, and the process is growing in popularity. Over time, buried bodies eventually become almost exactly the same as cremated ashes. Thus “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” is a real analogy. However, the process during the cremation only lasts about 90 minutes, while burial takes many years.
Cemeteries should keep pace with the times: with the best theories of religion, science and economics. They should be, as the name implies from its original Greek – sleeping places – places of rest, peace and freedom from intrusion.
The history of sepulture shows it is often futile to try to preserve one’s body or one’s name with the help of stone. Even if a man’s body is preserved as long as were those of the ancient Egyptians, it still finally disintegrates. These facts are recognised in the modern cemetery.
Such thought and research has gone into how best to design and operate a cemetery. A cemetery is often seen as a final resting place, but modern thinking indicates that it is best if a cemetery becomes a park, a breathing place for the people of the city. The memory of past generations will almost certainly be enhanced if it is associated with trees than if it is connected with tombs and catacombs. As a result, the aim of many cemetery authorities is to ensure pleasing combinations of growing plants as cemeteries are really memorial parks.
The provision of land for cemetery purposes is a cause for concern to authorities throughout the world as inflation, the cost and availability of land, population growth and resistance to cremation make their influence felt.
Although many South Africans resist the idea of using the same burial ground time and time again, this is frequently done in many European cities. Investigations show that the re-use of land for burial purposes is the only possible solution to the difficulties of obtaining land for cemeteries. The space available in Johannesburg is limited, and plans are under way to include a system of leasing graves.
Introducing such a system on the remaining vacant land at the Westpark Cemetery alone will have immediate advantages, for example, and will extend the life of the cemetery considerably.
Strong public sentiment prevents the existing cemeteries in Johannesburg from being reused for further burials, or used for any other purpose. All cemeteries must be maintained at ever-increasing costs – the question is, for how long? The Braamfontein Cemetery has been maintained since 1888, for example, and the cost of doing so is enormous.
There is a growing trend towards the leasing of private rights for a fixed period. In such a system, the next-of-kin are made aware that the council has the right to re-use a public grave, and they are able to renew the lease of the grave.
Another modern trend has been the use of the mausoleum concept of aboveground burial. While new to South Africa, this concept is well accepted internationally, particularly in European and American communities. A mausoleum is basically an aboveground burial chamber in which the deceased’s coffin or ashes are housed at the time of burial.
It is an answer to urban development, especially where there is insufficient space in cemeteries to accommodate conventional, below-ground burials. Mausolea also enable authorities to make use of rocky terrain or ground which may be unsuited to conventional burials. They can be designed to any size and specification, and are a practical and cost-effective alternative to conventional tombstones. They are generally clad with hardwearing stone or granite and, as a result, are weather-resistant and maintenance-free.
There has also been a trend in recent years for the provision of private cemeteries. The Fourways Memorial Park, which boasts landscaped gardens, differs considerably from many other cemeteries in Johannesburg. Security and maintenance were major factors in the design of the park, as have the careful planting of trees, shrubs and the installation of computerised administration systems.
Other forward-thinking design concepts include mass-grave gardens of remembrance and surface grave units that work in a similar way to the mausoleum concept. These concepts are designed to be constructed at the sides of existing cemeteries for economy of land. They are also able to be built on stony or hilly ground or even at worked-out stone quarries. Surface grave units are manufactured from concrete, are neat, durable and will last indefinitely. Even the utilisation of old, hardened mine dumps as mass gravesites has been proposed.