BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE // At West Park Cemetery, one of Bulawayo's three graveyards, it is business as usual as mourners come to bury their dead. Fresh gravestones compete for space with older ones, many of which are almost submerged in the tall grass. At the West Park Crematorium, however, the city's only crematorium, there is little activity, with only a few minders and some visitors strolling its yard.
It is something the Bulawayo City Council would like to change, and has been encouraging the citizens of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city with 1.5 million people, to switch to cremations to save land. Thaba Moyo, the 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," Mr Moyo said. "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, which kills 124,000 people yearly, according to Smartwork, a US-funded Aids organisation.
About 16 per cent of the population of 13m is infected by the deadly virus. In an impoverished country that is short of money to buy medical drugs, Aids - the progression of which is hastened by an unreliable intake of antiretroviral drugs and improper nutrition - is wreaking havoc. The disease accounts for up to 70 per cent of hospital admissions, said Smartwork, and as such, is the leading cause of death in the country.
"At the moment, people of Asian origin and the white community are cremating their dead, but we are saying anyone can be cremated. There is a response, but it is still low," Mr Moyo said. Charles Mpofu, a former councillor in Bulawayo, said in the past people who died in urban areas were taken to their rural homes for burial. But high transport costs are making it too costly for relatives and funeral companies to ferry corpses to rural areas for burial, and so they are being buried where they died.
"We realised that at the rate at which space was being taken up by graves, the city would in the next few years run short of land, so we came up with this idea," Mr Mpofu said. "Much of our land is now occupied by graves at a time when we are struggling to provide residential areas. What makes sense; to buy land to build a house on to live in now or to pay rent to occupy someone else's house for the rest of your life while your grave awaits you at the cemetery?"
But there is deep-rooted opposition to cremation among black Zimbabweans, who say African culture discourages it. Vimbai Chivaura, a cultural activist and English lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said 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, Mr Chivaura said, so if they cremate their deceased relatives, they feel that the spirit will not live in the afterlife. Nyevero Chatindo, 31, a housewife, said the deceased are deeply respected among blacks and burials are solemn events, so "burning the corpse of our relatives shows disrespect to them". However, Mr Moyo said traditional beliefs must not be used to discourage people from choosing cremation.
"Our ancestors never used to bury their dead in caskets, but we are doing that now. They never used to wear suits, now we do. So the argument of culture does not arise." CountryReports.org, a US website that compiles information on history and culture, said 24 per cent of the Zimbabwean population subscribes to traditional African beliefs and that 50 per cent combined both Christianity and indigenous beliefs.
Some blacks, such as Kingsley Dube, 81, do not see anything wrong with cremation. He said the shortage of burial space in big cities such as Harare and Bulawayo will become more acute in the future, especially if Aids continues to kill in such large numbers. Mr Dube, a retired journalist and diplomat, said he wants to be cremated when he dies. "I appreciate that many of us blacks cannot reconcile themselves to cremation as an option to burial. They still feel it is outlandish and un-African. But a dead body is a dead body, what is important is to know where the remains of the deceased are."