RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In South Africa, high death rates are creating a serious problem in some urban areas. The cemeteries are full. The coastal city of Durban has come up with a creative solution to its space problems. And as Anders Kelto reports, it's not a solution that pleases everyone.
ANDERS KELTO: At the Umlazi cemetery on the outskirts of Durban, Xolile Mahanjana wades through the knee-high grass. Rolling green hills extend around him, and a set of power lines runs overhead. He leans forward and sweeps aside the grass with his hands, trying to locate his mother's grave.
Mr. XOLILE MAHANJANA: It was between this one and that cross over there, which means it's here.
KELTO: Most of the graves here don't have headstones, and there isn't much order. And, like almost all of Durban's cemeteries, it's now completely full. So when Xolile arranged to have his mother buried here last year, he received quite a shock.
Mr. MAHANJANA: Because when we went there to bury my mother, we can see the skeletons of someone else.
KELTO: So your mother is literally lying on top of...
Mr. MAHANJANA: Someone else, yeah. That's what I'm saying.
KELTO: Someone that you don't know.
Mr. MAHANJANA: Someone that you don't even know.
KELTO: A recently passed law allows the city to dig up graves that are more than ten years old, and to reuse them - provided both families agree. Bones from the old grave are supposed to be put in a bag and buried deeper in the ground, so that the site appears fresh.
But Xolile says that, when they showed up, the grave wasn't deep enough. So they started digging deeper, and came across the remains of an unknown person. He was shocked, because they weren't told they were getting a recycled grave. But he felt they had no choice, so they threw dirt on top of the skeleton and laid his mother's coffin on top.
Mr. MAHANJANA: Our funerals cost big money. Big, big money. So I couldn't do anything. I had to bury her there.
KELTO: Death rates in South Africa have risen sharply over the last two decades, largely due to HIV. Fifty-eight of Durban's 60 cemeteries are now out of space, and Johannesburg and Cape Town expect their cemeteries to be full within ten years.
Pepe Dass of the Durban Parks and Cemeteries division says land is scarce, and the city has to prioritize things like agriculture and housing for the city's booming population.
Mr. PEPE DASS (Durban Parks and Cemeteries): The demand, now, to actually house, you know, that growing population will take a priority over burying them. That's the bottom line.
KELTO: But some citizens are strongly opposed to the policy. Lwasi Ntombela is a community organizer who has actively campaigned against grave recycling. He says tampering with the dead is taboo in Zulu culture.
Mr. LWASI NTOMBELA: For us, the grave is a very sacred place. We believe that the people who are dead are the people who are the angels for us who communicate with the almighty.
KELTO: And the Nazareth Baptist Church, of which Xolile is a member, opposes both cremation and grave recycling on religious grounds.
The South African government is now trying to determine if grave recycling is a violation of religious freedoms - a right strongly protected in South Africa's constitution. Dass says he hopes his department can find common ground with religious and cultural groups.
Mr. DASS: We need to be able to find a balance, you know, in terms of those issues - those cultural, very important issues, and the way we actually live.
KELTO: Back in Umlazi, Xolile stands over his mother's grave. A heavy rain begins to fall. He didn't get her a headstone, because he's hoping to have the body exhumed and moved to a new location. Whether or not he'll be able to find a new space remains to be seen.
For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto in Durban, South Africa.
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