Cremation in Zimbabwe and the calabash of challenges

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda is city planner and researcher focusing on African cities. He is a senior research associate at the African Urban Institute and author of the book, Dystopian Cities.

Municipalities of major cities in Zimbabwe, Harare and Bulawayo are in a controversial debate of alternative burial method, cremation. Bulawayo recently announced, that it will be cremating children under the age of 10 years upon their parents’ consent, to save burial space. Following Bulawayo is Harare which is lobbying with stakeholders to adopt cremation. Promotion of cremation in Zimbabwe’s major cities has been gaining local authorities’ concern since 2010 as most cemeteries are approaching decommission for being full. As cities are promoting cremation, how endemic is land scarcity in Zimbabwe? How exhaustive are alternative measures to shortage of burial space? How participatory is the promotion of cremation?

Cremation is a burial process where high temperatures are used to burn, vaporise, oxidate dead human or animal bodies reducing them to chemical compounds. Cremation has been used for religious purposes in Hinduism. It extended outside religious purposes as highly urbanised cities run out of space for conventional in-ground burial.

Cremation is least prominent in African cities, for it is shunned as a religious abomination and cultural taboo. Nevertheless, increasing urbanisation exacerbated by outspread of HIV/AIDS pandemic and other diseases has led to increase in urban death rates filling up the existing burial space. In Zimbabwe, one of the trigger to the need for alternative burial measures came after the decommissioning of existing cemeteries in major cities. The cemeteries that have been functional since independence and prior to independence are approaching the decommissioning phase since 2010. In planning for new burial spaces, cremation has come as an alternative in cities’ aspirations towards ‘world-class cities’.

Efforts to popularise cremation as an alternate to conventional burial are met with fierce resistance for religious and cultural justifications. While this issue of cremation is a controversial issue particularly in African cities, attempts to popularise it demonstrates the nature of contextualisation of urban solutions. Bulawayo the second largest city in Zimbabwe, which had seven cemeteries, recently added two new cemeteries to its city, Pumula and Marvel cemeteries. The two cemeteries which combined have a total capacity of 150 000 grave plots (Pumula, 52.7 hectares and Marvel 25 hectares) will serve Bulawayo for the next 28 years.

Cremation is not a new practice in Zimbabwe.  It has been practiced for a long time mostly by residents of Asian descent and white residents. The percentage of death that are cremated in Zimbabwe’s two major cities, are nevertheless, as low as 2.4 % in Harare and 2.6 % in Bulawayo in 2016. In Harare, there are two crematoriums (where cremations services are offered), Warren Hills crematorium and Pioneer Crematorium (Hindu Cremation). While urban authorities are encouraging urban residents to adopt cremation, crematoriums in these cities is in state of dilapidation.

Crematoriums in Dilapidation

The City of Bulawayo passed a resolution to cremate children under the age of 10 year of age upon consent of their parents, to free burial space. City of Harare picked the narrative by lobbying groups to opt for cremation over the conventional in-ground burial to save urban land. Cemeteries as other social amenities in Zimbabwe are in neglect. Lack of maintenance of cemeteries, theft of tombstones vandalism which has led to urban residents pay cemetery workers separately, to maintain graves of their deceased family members. Crematoriums are no exception in dilapidation. The few crematoriums in Zimbabwe are poorly maintained. Crematoriums require a medical referee who process the  prerequisite documents for cremation process. In Zimbabwe, the permanent medical referee is appointed the Ministry of Home Affairs. Cities such as Bulawayo have been operating without a permanent medical referee for more than 10 years. This human resource shortage in crematoriums demonstrate the challenge in the alternative solutions the cities are promoting. Other than shortage of human resources especially those who maintained crematoriums, cities occasionally face gas shortages which is important in cremations. Resource shortages pose a challenge in the efficiency of the cremation process which is being scaled up to reduce pressure on burial spaces.

Cremation around the world

As dense-burial design specialist Tuvia Sagiv described the public anticipation to be buried in spacious burial plots as ‘dying in villas’. Globally cemeteries are facing an adaption crisis of whether to change, shrink, or disappear. In response to urbanisation and increasing scarcity of urban land for conventional burial, there has been an increase in cremation rates against urban residents’ religious beliefs and cultural norms. Cost and religious beliefs have been the main drivers of cremation around the world. In United States the cost of in-ground burial have been as high as US$350, 000 per vault in the dense Manhattan, and US$5, 800 in New York’s least populous Staten Island. The increasing costs of burial has led to doubling of cremation rates in past 15 years in United States where in 1999 it was about 25% and 47% in 2014.

Figure 1: Cremation rates around the globe

Source: The Economist (2016)

South Africa has been experiencing increasing demand for burial space in its major cities, as Durban invested US1.2 million developing a 100 hectare-cemetery to cater for the increasing demand. In response to urban land shortage globally, there have been alternatives such as stacked caskets in mausoleums instead of individual crypts and other cemetery innovation focused on greening and environmental sustainability.

Participatory Planning to test

Faced with high resistance from urban residents, the city councils are focusing on the need to educate and raising awareness to residents and lobby groups about cremation as the ultimate solution to the cremation resistance. Participatory planning in Zimbabwe has been poor or lack of thereof. From the urban councils’ side, it has been pressured by the need to legitimise the urban development initiatives. This has been in the interests of stakeholders particularly the donor community that uphold citizen participation as a fundamental aspect of urban development process. From the residents’ side, participation has been neglected by most of them since end results do not reflective adequately input from their participation, poor platforms for participation, lack of awareness, and resentment.

Changes that involve religious compromises in Zimbabwe as other African societies are met with intense resistance. Religious leaders in Zimbabwe have been pointing to the risk of dabbling in religious apostasy in the name of urban land shortage. Christians, Muslims, and Traditionalists have been expressing their disapproval of the alternative

Regardless of all the social pressure, local authorities have been regarding the issue of land for burial space as more of spatial science than social science. This is a critical issue too close to communities and require more input from them. Cremation is highly regarded cultural and religious taboo in Zimbabwe and African countries. Even in countries with variations in religious beliefs within their states such as United States, there is a huge variation in cremation rate inconsideration of urban density. Nevada with religious percentage of 35% has highest cremation rate of 75.9 % while Mississippi with religious percentage of 82% has the lowest cremation rate of 19. 7 %. The densest State and most expensive State for burials in United States with religious percentage of 51.65% has cremation rate of 40.1 %. This demonstrate how important are religious beliefs in adoption of cremation as an alternative. As a result, it takes the planning authorities to educate the residents on the trade-offs in urban development towards sustainable choices.

Land shortage or different prioritisation?

Urban land shortage has been an increasing narrative by local authorities as urbanisation in Zimbabwe increases at 2.3 % per year. Zimbabwe with urban population of 34.2 percent of the total population proves to be in its infancy to consider urban land shortage as endemic. Land-use density in most cities is still very low as densification strategies the municipalities adopted failed to be effective for various reasons.

The primary role of urban planning by local authorities is to serve public interest. As urbanisation unfolds, competing uses increase on scarce urban land. Globally this has been witnessed by dilemma of cities either economic hubs or liveable communities, and how they can balance both roles. Planning has been fundamental in regulating the market forces of supply and demand particularly of urban space. In Zimbabwe, competing uses are on the rise particularly for commercial space, residential space, and the now burial space. In these market forces land-use of lower values are ‘downraided’ by land-use of higher use value, in this sequence, commercial are of higher land-use value than residential, and so does residential to burial space. As Zimbabwean cities plan for more post-colonial cemeteries, the balance of public interest and urban economy are fundamental to ensure liveable cities.

Forward planning for burial spaces

Zimbabwean cities are in the post-colonial planning period and visioning to be a world-class city. Most urban spaces such as cemeteries were commissioned during the colonial era. However, they are now approaching decommissioning phase as they are becoming full. Cities are to designate new space for cemeteries which will cater for at least 30 years to come. Faced with this reality and post-colonial planning chaos, land for cemeteries is scarce. In seeking solutions to urban problems in the vision of world-class cities, solutions such as cremation have been lucrative to address the land shortage.

Burial space is a critical issue in land use planning. It is important to consider how endemic is shortage of urban land for burial space. Zimbabwe’s urban population is less than 40 % of the total population compared to South Africa’s 65 %. Most urbanised countries which have high rates of cremation have urban population more than 80 % such as United States with 82%, Britain, 83%, and Hong Kong, 100%. Hence, the critical nature of land space shortage is not endemic as yet, and this is critical for municipalities to design their urban burial space strategies and consider range of alternatives that include cremation, comprehensively. Other than natural urban population increase, Zimbabwe’s urbanisation process is well characterised by what can be called ‘rush to the metropolis’. Major cities such as Harare and Bulawayo receives most urban in-migrants from rural areas, and urban areas. Thus, major cities face most urban challenges such as pressure on urban land and services.

Most cemeteries in Bulawayo and Harare were designed to fit into the urban fabric of the time catering smaller population during the colonial area. The busting of the major cities into metropolitan cities require metropolitan solutions. Regional cemeteries are another viable option to address the land shortage for burial spaces in major cities. Instead of designing cemeteries that fit into the current urban fabric for convenience, regional cemeteries can cater for long-term metropolitan needs such as catering for Greater Harare Metropolitan area which includes other satellite towns.



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