RECENTLY Bulawayo City Council confirmed the prevailing fear of a growing problem that would soon render the dead homeless as city burial sites are running out of space.
The startling revelations have been a thorn in the council’s foot for a long time, leaving the City fathers with no option, but to suggest cremation as a panacea.
Despite all this, in 2013 there were heated debates in relation to considering cremation as a way of mitigating burial space shortage. The same obstacles the council faced then have resurfaced.
Even though councillor for Ward 4, Silas Chigora, suggested that cremation should be offered for free or cheaper to overcome resistance, the situation has not changed or lightened the perspective and attitudes towards cremation.
Culture, religion, tradition, fear of the unknown and resistance towards new culture are just a tip of the iceberg why Zimbabweans, and in this particular case Bulawayo residents, are strongly resisting cremation.
According to a 2014 council report, in October 2014 only 14 bodies were cremated while 400 bodies were buried in the same month.
This is just a glimpse into the resistance and attitude that people have towards cremation.
As a result, inevitable questions are raised as to whether cremation is a viable solution?
If it is, why is it meeting a strong tide of resistance from the public?
And mostly what are the initiatives on the ground taken by the City fathers to raise awareness to suppress stereotypes fanning ignorance towards cremation.
Arguably, cremation is an environmentally friendly and economically viable method of sending off the deceased.
Despite Bulawayo having only one crematorium the facility has never been exploited to its full capacity, due to a lack of awareness, cultural beliefs and traditions, as people still opt for burial.
Historian and cultural specialist Pathisa Nyathi concurred with the glaring reality that cremation was meeting resistance due to culture and tradition.
“Culture forms a barrier against new practices and in as much as religious realm changes, it does so very slowly. For example Christian belief is that there is hell and most of them cannot bear the thought of being burnt on earth and in hell as well.
“Traditionalists require soil not ashes to conduct ‘umbuyiso’ known as a memorial service. Therefore if someone is cremated it means that the service cannot be possible,” said Nyathi.
In the same tone, Bible Life Ministry International Pastor Dumisani Moyo highlighted that the African setup allows flourishing of sentiments with the dead, which are frequently fed by a physical attachment to the grave.
“The African setup has always been of the view that you have to bury someone where you can visit them,” he said.
Nevertheless Pastor Moyo quickly acknowledged that cremation had no effect as it is all about life after death.
“I don’t see any problem with cremation, dead people are not conscious. It’s all about where your soul goes afterwards. The problem is that it’s not easy to adjust to a new set-up, people have to be taught why they need to adjust to a new set-up,” he said.
Mayibongwe Nyathi, a resident from Magwegwe had a different perspective as he argued that cremation was a double blow to mourners.
“I have heard about cremation, but it’s something that still remains a taboo to many people. The thought of burning the body of your loved one, it’s like subjecting them to torture, as if death is not enough. Even if you know that they don’t feel any pain, it’s just psychological, it’s hard to deal with,” he said.
One of the few Zimbabweans, Florence Jele, from Njube, who once conducted cremation as a send-off to her grandparent said that it was a matter of choice, though a painful one.
“We had to come to terms with cremation, because it was a choice that was made by our grandparent before she passed away. As a family it took time for us to accept the decision but we had to go for it because it was her wish,” she said.
Despite perceptions that Jele and family had on cremation, she now believes it’s a matter of having experience that enlightens one on different issues.
“Cremation for us as a family was just one of those weird things you get to hear about or see on television. When it came to conducting it I think it cleared tradition and cultural misconceptions that we had about the practice. There were people in my family who were and still are against the process,” said Jele.
Bulawayo City Council public relations officer Nesisa Mpofu, despite acknowledging cultural and traditional rifts slowing down cremation, issued financial charges favouring cremation compared to burial.
“There are various reasons that have been put forward ranging from cultural to religious. A proper response can at best be elicited at individual level.
“Council charges US$63 per body for cremation while the charge for burial at West Park cemetery is US$56 for a casket and US$47 for a standard coffin. At Luveve cemetery it is US$40 for a casket and US$37 for a standard coffin,” she said.
Also giving out merits of cremation Nyathi, hinted that cremation saves a lot of space even if relatives of the deceased decide to bury the ashes.
“Here in Bulawayo, there is a place called Garden of rest, where ashes of those who are cremated are buried. Unlike a normal grave that measures two-and-a-half feet wide and eight feet long, these graves only measure one meter by half a meter, this relatively consumes very little space,” he said.
Nyathi further added that besides engaging residents on cremation awareness the council may as well try burying couples in the same grave.
“There are several measurements that can be taken for example there are initiatives like burying a couple in the same grave. This will almost save burial space by half of what the city is currently consuming,” he said.