Neglected graves in cemeteries, a sorry sight

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During the burial of a friend at Warren Hills Cemetery last week Morgan Matondo decided to inspect his father’s grave. They buried him in January 2009.

The sight was heart-breaking. The grave had long collapsed with dried flowers that had adorned it floating above the water that had pooled in the gaping hole.

“I could not believe my eyes,” he says. “I was very disturbed and I wished I had come back earlier to check the state of the grave.”

He had since “contracted” one of the grave diggers to rebuild the grave at a cost of $100 and then afterwards maintain it for a monthly payment of $20.

This face-to-face encounter with the neglect of public cemeteries in Harare had been experienced by many people with loved ones whose remains were interred at the burial sites.

Cemeteries including Warren Hills, Tafara, Granville and Pioneer in Mbare, now speak of abandon and have been reduced to dumping sites as people continue to show disrespect for the dead.

As per traditional custom, many Zimbabwean revere the dead and this is shown by the general respect shown for burial grounds.

Grave diggers at public cemeteries, however, “offer” to keep graves in shape at cost.

At Warren Hills, some graves have since collapsed and the only sign they contain human remains is the dried flowers and identification plaques that have fallen into the grave.

At cemeteries like Granville, some tombstones have been vandalised or stolen by thieves believed to be reselling them.

According to a grave digger, they got significant extra income through personal arrangements with family members for the maintenance.

The payments ranged from $10 to as much as $25 per grave depending on how the family wanted the grave maintained.

Some opted to have fresh flowers planted on the grave and watered regularly while others simply chose to have graves cleared of weeds.

This was done before the tombstone erection, normally between three and five years.

“The taps are far from the graves, so ferrying water is a burden,” he said.

“The fresh flowers we plant on the graves as per relatives’ requests need to be watered everyday.
“Since we also weed the graves and remove nettles, we have to be paid.”

He added watering the grave was important because it had a compacting effect, such that the grave would not easily collapse and the general maintenance ensured people did not temper with it.
“When people see that a grave has been neglected, with weeds and nettles, showing that no one has ever visited since the person’s burial, they can easily remove stones and use them on new graves,” he added.

He insisted that was not part of their normal line of duty as they were employed simply to dig graves and bury the dead.

However, according to the Cemeteries Act Chapter 5:04, trustees are appointed by Local Government minister to “preserve, maintain and keep in a clean and orderly state and condition and to cause to be so maintained and kept the whole of the cemetery and its walls and fences and all monuments, tombstones, enclosures, buildings, erections, walks, trees and shrubs therein; to protect the buildings, monuments, tombs, shrubberies, plantations and enclosures therein and thereof from disturbance or damage”.

Tanaka Machivana of Greendale said he paid grave diggers $50 a month for the upkeep of his parents’ graves.

“I feel it’s a cultural obligation, and part and parcel of honouring parents as stated in the Bible.

“They don’t cease to be your parents in death,” he said.

During the rainy season, most of the collapsed graves look like pools, filled with water, something cultural experts argued is unfortunate. Robert Mhishi, a sociologist, said in the traditional African pantheon, burial sites were revered.

“It’s unfortunate now graveyards are neglected and prone to vandalism.

“But that is totally out of line,” he said. I think it’s a good idea actually that families do opt to pay grave diggers to maintain a relative’s grave.”

Council spokesperson Leslie Gwindi, said there nothing wrong with such arrangements between families and grave diggers.

“It’s something you, as a family, can’t leave for the council only, because that would not be right. “We work together. It’s a mutual partnership.

“It’s also important because it (the maintenance) allows the grave to settle so that it doesn’t easily collapse,” he said.