- Southern Africa
- Culture - Tradition
Cremation of dead espoused in Southern Africa
In most Africa cultures cremation is largely considered a taboo but due to increasing shortage of land it is now being touted as an alternative to burial in Southern Africa.
A significant amount of land, which could have been used to set up businesses or residencies, is taken up by cemeteries. Increasing number of deaths in Southern Africa in recent years have been linked to AIDS.
With an average of 10 burials a day in a single cemetery in Zimbabwe, and an estimated 12 in Botswana, cremation has been espoused as the only way to solve the growing problem.
But whilst several municipalities in Botswana are giving cremation a serious thought, the burning of dead bodies, however, has traditionally not been culturally acceptable for most Africans.
The Mayor of Francistown, Botswana’s second largest city, Mr Shadreck Nyeku, says the city’s only cemetery at Gerald Estate is 90 percent full and that a new one is in the process of being developed.
"Some Batswana are resorting to cremation as an option … The problem is that it is a sensitive issue that needs a cautious approach. Consideration should be given to the culture and religious beliefs of people."
"Cremating will prove difficult for people to adjust to because it is something new to us. Our forebears never practiced it”, says Nyeku.
Zimbabwe’s second largest city of Bulawayo with over 1.5 million people is also encouraging residents to switch to cremations to save land.
Mr Thaba Moyo, the city’s mayor, said cemeteries were fast filling up and that the council is negotiating with some landowners for more land on which to establish new graveyards or expand existing ones.
"We want to educate our people that cremation has some advantages over normal burial. It is cheaper as you do not even need a coffin. Also, you do not need to buy a grave. On the other hand, the local authority saves land which we can use for other purposes like building houses and factories."
Zimbabwe has one of the world’s biggest HIV and Aids pandemics, killing about 124,000 people yearly, according to Smartwork, a US-funded Aids organisation.
According to Mr Moyo, people of Asian descent as well as the White community are cremating their dead but there is slow response from Blacks. In February only 13 cremations were done; a low figure that has led the municipality draw up a burial strategy.
The burial strategy comprises of three approaches, including, digging up deep graves to allow for two or three burials, stopping the reservation of graves and asking owners of unused graves to sell them back to the council, and the reduction of cremation tariffs to less than half the price of a traditional burial.
At present, a basic burial — including cemetery, grave fees, a modest wooden casket and transportation — costs about $380 whilst cremation costs an average of $200.
Nonetheless, deep-rooted opposition to cremation among Black Zimbabweans who say African culture discourages it is growing as constant electricity cuts and expensive fuel add to arguments against the practice.
Mr Gilbert Mbasa, a cultural activist and English lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, argues that each culture has a way of handling its dead and for black Africans, cremation is not one of them.
"In our culture, death is not simply stopping to live, it’s a transition from one state of being to another. Those who burn their dead have their understanding of death, which is not ours," he said.
Zimbabweans believe in life-after-death, and so if they cremate their deceased relatives they feel that the spirit will not live in the afterlife, Mr Mbasa adds.