Something's very wrong when graveyards have to supply security for the dead
South Africans aren't even safe when they've been cremated
South Africa’s thieves are stooping to new all-time lows with the nicking of the ashes of the dead.
In the last three months, thieves have stolen and vandalised the small wooden kists containing ashes of four people at the Wall of Remembrance at the cemetery at the Mpumalanga town of Middelburg.
The kists that could not be opened properly were damaged and the contents emptied on the ground.
The defilement, which has sparked condemnation from religious organisations, is not only occurring in the tiny industrial town, but across the country with reports also in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
In March last year the Sowetan reported that over 50 kists at Kempton Park’s Mooifontein cemetery on the East Rand were broken open and the ashes, which were held inside, stolen.
In the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast town of Scottburgh, dozens of boxes of ashes have been stolen from a memorial wall at the town’s graveyard over the past two years.The thefts have seen municipalities ramping up security with guards being deployed and CCTV cameras being installed.
While some municipal authorities believe those who smoke Whoonga or Nyaope – a concoction of heroin and dagga – are behind the thefts, others say the motive and culprits are unknown.
“We simply do not know who would do this or why,” said Prudence Magutle, spokesperson for the Steve Tshwete Local Municipality, under which Middelburg falls.
Magutle, who slammed the defilement of the town’s graveyard, said they would soon be installing cameras at their cemeteries and were looking at security measures specifically for the remembrance wall, which includes “locking it up”.
“We also have officials guarding the cemetery during the day. The CCTV cameras are part of a wider municipality anti-crime security programme which we are rolling out. We hope that with these cameras such abhorrent crimes will be stopped.”
She said the thefts had been occurring since May at the Fontein cemetery, where one kist had had its ashes removed, while three others had been broken open.Magutle said while they knew of the four cases, they were concerned that there could be more.
“The problem is getting people to come forward and report them officially. We are incredibly worried about this. We need people to report these thefts to both the municipality and the police,” she said, describing the thefts as macabre.
Magutle said despite the municipality reporting the theft case to the police they were still awaiting a case number.
“We are working with the police and monitoring the situation.”
Asked about the motive, Magutle said while it was unknown, vandalism was high on the list of reasons.
Middelburg police station spokesperson Captain Khayisile Zwane said they had not received any reports of defilements of graves.
“We are urging people to come and report if the graves of their loved ones have been damaged.”
An Umdoni [Scottburgh] municipality source said they understood that drug addicts who used whoonga mixed ashes into the drug, with the belief that it would make the narcotic more potent.“It’s totally crazy. These are the reports that we have received. How true it is we don’t know for sure. Regardless, it’s totally horrendous that people are breaking open kists and stealing the remains of loved ones.”
Asked about the motives for the thefts from the town’s cemetery, Umdoni municipality spokesperson Zime Gcaba said they believed the thefts could be related to the use of whoonga.
She said because of the spate of thefts that occurred last year, they had placed security guards at the cemetery, which had helped reduce the problem.
“They are stationed at the graveyard full-time. Since we employed the security guards we have not had more reports of such incidents.”Reverend Ian Booth, treasurer of The Diakonia Council of Churches, who has spoken out on the thefts in Scottburgh, said the defilements of memorial walls and graveyards were incredibly worrying.
“Such actions are a violation of human remains. It’s just as bad as digging up human remains. Families place their loved ones in certain places thinking that they will be safe and take comfort in this, only to have these spots violated.”Ashwin Trikamjee, president of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha [the supreme body of the Hindu religion in South Africa], said the defilement of graves was highly disturbing.
“Regardless of religion, graveyards and the resting place of the dead is a highly sensitive issue for people. When you interfere with this [graveyards] you are interfering with the deepest sensitivities of people.
“What is happening is concerning and worrying. We will investigate this and demand that the relevant authorities take action to protect the sanctities of graveyards.”