Oct 4th 2013,

In Maitland Cemetery, where passion entwines with mortality, a team of committed workers ensure that the dead are given a dignified exit.

At the mandala-like centre of Cape Town’s 100 ha cemetery, two workers scrape their brooms calmly through the dust, making a cicada-like noise that sounds like a teacher telling a class to “shush”. But for the dead who lie in Maitland cemetery, it’s too late to learn any more lessons.

Here, the brief and brutal lives of Cape Town’s gangsters are etched onto the tombstones and the sound of gunshots accompanies them into eternity. James Thomas, who has worked for 26 years as a tombstone layer, says, “Gangsters are our main customers. They have a short life. If they die, the boss looks after them.” And, if they’re the boss? Then, having spent a life of skullduggery, they will be laid to rest in a splendid structure, replete with pillars. Lording over the space is the resting place of the notorious gang leader Coleen Stanfi eld. “His grave cost R74 000,” says James, “and a lot of trouble.” On the day a ganglord is buried, police line the perimeter of the cemetery, rifl es cocked towards the gravesite, ready to step in and stop the violence if rival gangs appear.

The undertakers are a jovial bunch. It seems that being close to death reminds them to enjoy their allotted lifespan:pot bellies, deep laughter and smilewrinkled faces are evident among them.
Throughout the day, the tombstone layers troop in and out of the record office, a grim place the electronic age hasn’t yet reached. Everybody buried at Maitland cemetery, dating back to the first burial on 16 January 1886, is recorded as a hand-written entry in a dusty ledger. The books are close to disintegrating, their pages threadbare and torn, but the tombstone layers flick through them as though looking for a number in a telephone directory, double-checking that their tombstones are allocated to the correct grave, regardless of the fact that tearing a page might eradicate evidence of a corpse’s resting place forever.

1994 brought big changes to the business of burial. Until then, three institutions monopolised the death market: Cliff, Gardener and Monumental Art. But after 1994, new laws opened up the market and soon entrepreneurs like Ronnie Abernaud began offering tombstones at a quarter of the price. However, this new freedom has brought a scourge of opportunism. ‘The bakkie gang’, as James calls them, have been making a quick profit, passing off cheap concrete tombstones as genuine granite, designed to weather all elements into eternity. Unwitting mourners, who spend up to R10 000 for a granite tombstone, are dismayed to find that in less than a year, concrete starts to poke through the spray-painted granite effect and the writing on the tombstone begins to vanish.

But most people are lucky and get what they are able to pay for. There’s no limit to the amount you can spend. At the upper end, you can have gold leaf inscribed on black marble, and at the lower end, a plain wooden cross or an estate agent-like sign. Variety is the spice of, well, death.

Popular in Maitland is the heart-shaped tombstone that adds a touch of kitsch to any grave, especially when combined with water bottles filled with plastic flowers. Another tradition is to attach a photograph of the deceased, generally unflattering and out of focus, to the tombstone.

Why is it that we address the dead in tones that we would never use to speak to them when they were alive? In death, the cold-shouldered husband suddenly becomes a ‘dearly departed’. The most gut-wrenching condolences are written in honest, heartfelt tones: I get a lump in my throat after reading “Mummy, our whole lives through our aching hearts will always love, miss and remember you.’ Still, each grave tells a story and my imagination longs to fill in the blank spaces.

There’s the grave of the ‘beloved wife’ who passed away in 2003. The right-hand side remains blank, waiting for the husband who will join her at a future date. Meanwhile, the grave is sadly neglected. Has the husband found a new lease on life? Is he sailing the world, or has the departed wife been replaced with a living version? Then there’s the 20 year old who died in an aviation accident. I want to know more. Why can’t each grave have a biography sealed in a glass jar beside it: a record of that person’s achievements, their loves and passions? Surely, each life is worth that much? The clichéd lines etched in stone suddenly seem so inadequate to the task of remembering a life. Towards the far end of Maitland cemetery rest those of European extraction. Celtic crosses abound and graves, overgrown with ivy, are watched over by white marble angels. It’s a piece of history, a slice of apartheid trapped in amber and a pertinent reminder that death is the great equaliser and cannot be made to obey laws, or be kept out by fences. In this European section, I feel a familiar melancholy, as though the grey skies of Europe descend upon my shoulders. I read of people who died in the year that I was born, and those who passed away too early to love.Thoughts on the meaning of life and the dice-throw of our lifespan sink my head into my shoulders and I’m grateful to bump into the very much alive figure of Yvonne Burrickes, Mitchell Plains’ Community undertaker.

Yvonne’s down-to-earth pragmatism lifts my spirits. ”I know everything of dead people. Everything of dead bodies,” she tells me when we meet. It appears that I’ve been approaching the graveyard, maybe my whole life, from the wrong end. The tombstones, that until now have claimed all my attention, are, as Yvonne explains, only what you might call the cherry on the cake of death. Yvonne advises all her clients not to add a tombstone to a grave until 9 months have passed. Otherwise, the water that lies at the bottom of the graves in Maitland can rise up to tilt the tombstone. I have a vision of thousands of coffins rising to the surface after a heavy dose of rain. But Yvonne assures me that, in Maitland, no coffin has ever resurfaced.

This is thanks largely to the efforts of Sidney Aroman, a gravedigger at Maitland for 18 years. Graves are dug to certain specifications – the dead are legally required to be buried six feet under. Sidney is not the type to shirk his duties and try to get away with a mere five foot eight inches. Sidney takes pride in his neat graves; his mounds are lovingly constructed mud pies. But I can’t help but wonder if some of the other 18 gravediggers that work at Maitland have ever had a bad day and buried a body in a grave shallower than the stipulated six feet.

Six feet is a long way down. I’ve never peered into a grave before and Sidney takes me to the edge to have a look. It feels damp and cold down there and water collects at the bottom. Over the hole is placed what Yvonne calls ‘a lowering device’, which looks like a medieval torture implement. The coffin is strapped onto it and, at the family’s request, is either lowered into the grave slowly or dropped suddenly. Apparently, this can be a point of fierce contention, splitting families along the lines of those who favour a sudden plummet against those who insist on a slow descent.

Central to Yvonne’s trade is the hearse, Yvonne’s pride and joy. “I was blessed with this,” she says, pointing to the white Merc V8 turning into the cemetery. As with most things in the capitalist world, when it comes to coffins, there’s a bewildering array of choice. If you want a touch of class, you can have a flat-lid coffin that allows you to view the dead under glass. This will set you back R2 000. Today’s funeral costs R4 500, which is expensive by Yvonne’s standards.

Yvonne takes pride in offering value for money and good service: “I don’t give rubbish to my people as I expect them to come back to me,” she says, leaving me hoping that it’s not the dead that she expects to get repeat business from. Today’s funeral takes place in a private section of the cemetery. In South Africa, you have to choose between not only public and private healthcare, but burial, too. “What’s the difference?” I ask. “Actually there’s no advantage,” Yvonne says but just as I’m making a mental note to request a public burial in my will, she adds, “Except that anyone can go on top of one another.” Excuse me? Apparently, in public graves the cemetery reserves the right to bury another body on top of you. It could be anyone. Imagine. Sharing eternity with a stranger. For an extra R1 200 all of us with boundary issues can rest assured that no other corpse would ever encroach on our space. Personally, I think that’s worth the outlay. The R4 500 that a family spends with Yvonne gets them a lot of bang for their buck. Yvonne offers a 24-hour service and will remove a dead body at any time, from anywhere. This is often a tricky business.
“You get the families that won’t let you take their mother from the bed. I just stand to one side and let them cry their hearts out.”

Once Yvonne has the body, she takes it to a mortuary to be washed and embalmed. It is, she says, “a solemn act”. Yvonne loves her work and clearly forms an attachment to the dead in her care, referring to them fondly as “my bodies”. She returns to the funeral parlor on the day of the funeral for a final check on the corpse, which often bleeds through the nose and needs cleaning again.

Clearly, this is not work for the faint hearted. But Yvonne is devoid of squeamishness to a degree that I can only marvel at. When Yvonne is not organising burials, she looks after the old and infirm, praying with them and changing their nappies. Viewing life from the departure lounge has given her wisdom: “A person is actually nothing. What’s the use of having lots of money in the bank? Nothing can go with you.”

Yvonne is not daunted by death. Tibetan yogis spend years in meditation to reach the kind of fearlessness that Yvonne has achieved by respectfully handling the dead. ”I appreciate life, but I’m ready to go at any time. I’m prepared.”

It’s not the emotional aspect of death, but the practical challenges it presents that cause Yvonne the most concern. Dead bodies are heavy and Yvonne struggled with removing them until Reagan, her 25-year-old son, decided to give up his job as a bus driver for Golden Arrow. Named after the American ex-president, Reagan joined forces with his mother and swapped transporting the living for carrying the dead. His new occupation can be risky. “You deal with a lot of AIDS bodies here,” he says. He relies on plastic gloves and yearly injections against the myriad of diseases that he might contract to keep him on top of his game. Surrounded by mourners, Reagan is a lively figure who moves mercurially through the crowd. Wearing a Billabong hoodie and Levi jeans, he supervises the lowering of the coffin. Alert to everything that is going on around him, he organises the burial with the vigilance of a referee at a football match, embodying life to the fullest.

by Dawn Kennedy