To walk the cemeteries of Johannesburg is to explore the city’s own history. The first cemetery in the city was on the corner of Bree and Harrison Streets, laid out in 1886 when gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand. This became overrun as the town grew briskly and land was acquired in Braamfontein for the Braamfontein Cemetery, which received its first burials in 1888. The bodies from the city cemetery were exhumed and removed to Braamfontein in the 1890s.
There were private farm cemeteries at several locations around the city - Alberts Farm, north-west of the city, Bezuidenhout Valley, east of the city, and Klipriviersberg, down south. Most of these are still in place.
In 1912, the Brixton Cemetery was opened, barely a kilometre west of the Braamfontein Cemetery. Both cemeteries reflect the city's history, with Randlords, miners, engineers, soldiers, geologists and mayors finding their final resting place in them.
At that time, mourners requested locations for different religions, and a Jewish section was established, which lies adjacent to the Muslim section. Just outside these sections were places for Chinese, blacks, military, firemen, policemen and many more religious divisions. 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 period were laid out in lawn and ribbon flower beds, on the same pattern as the war cemeteries in Europe.
In 1918, a wood-burning crematorium was built in the Brixton Cemetery, on land organised by Mahatma Gandhi on behalf of the Hindu community. It is now a national monument. In 1956, a gas-fired crematorium was built alongside the old crematorium and its chapel.
More recently, after a year-long search, Enoch Sontonga's grave was located at Braamfontein Cemetery, and the man who wrote South Africa's national anthem, Nkosi Sikeleli, is remembered with an impressive granite cube.
The Kliprivierberg Cemetery, south of the city, contains the victims of one of many concentration camps set up during the Anglo Boer War. The cemetery contains 700 graves. In all, 5 000 men, women and children were interned in a camp at the Turffontein Race Course.
In many ways, the development of cemeteries echoes Johannesburg’s own apartheid history. 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. In 1920 the Nancefield Cemetery in Soweto opened, followed by the Doornkop Cemetery in the 1930s.
The first burial in Westpark Cemetery took place on 10 February 1942, and during that year there were 6 603 burials in the four cemeteries under the Park Department’s control.
In 1972, the 172-hectare Avalon Cemetery opened in Soweto. This cemetery holds the remains of many heroes of the struggle against apartheid, including Joe Slovo, the general secretary of South African Communist Party and former chief-of-staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and women's leaders Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph.
Then, finally, 24 years later, Waterval Cemetery in Midrand opened, adding space for 440 000 burials. A year later, Diepsloot Memorial Park opened. Built along modern trends and with an Afrocentric model, the park received a silver award in the whole city environmental management category at the prestigious Liveable Community (LivCom) Awards, organised by the United Nations, in London in November 2007.