Exhumed from the tombs

This is one of a few grave stones which is still visible at the old Athlone cemetery site.

Priests and parishioners from the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town, as well as professionals who would be working at the site, gathered at an old Athlone cemetery on Wednesday April 12 to bless the land before work started to exhume the remains of 2 500 people who were buried there.

The cemetery, adjacent to Klipfontein Road and the Black River Parkway, was first used as a church burial ground in 1867.

The last recorded burial took place in 1946.

Anglicans were usually buried there, although the cemetery was used for burials of a large number of people who were not members of the church, during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.

The three churches who used the burial site, are St George’s in Silvertown, the now defunct St James in Black River, and St Mark’s in Athlone. St Paul’s in Rondebosch once had oversight of these three parishes, and all the records about those buried there, could be found at St Paul’s.

Reverend Michael Bester did the research “on and off” for about one year, and started when he was based at St George’s Anglican Church in Silvertown.

“It was quite an undertaking, however the church is good at keeping records. There was a register missing, and I also looked at old parish magazines, as sometimes they would publish background information on prominent members of the parish. There are a few gaps, but it is quite remarkable how the records are being kept,” Mr Bester said.

Archaeologist, Mary Patrick, who heads up the team of 28 – 16 of whom are post-graduate physical anthropologists from UCT – said more than half of the estimated 2 500 people buried there, were children and babies.

“It was particularly difficult during 1918, when many people lost their lives because of the Spanish flu. Up to 20 funerals a day were being held.

“During this time, the church struggled to find carpenters to build coffins, hence many were buried without coffins,” she said.

The land has been sectioned into quadrants, with the exhumation focusing on one quadrant at a time, before moving on to the next one.

After the completion of each quadrant, a special ceremony will be held to pray not only for the remains found, but also for the team doing the work over the next few months. According to Ms Patrick, the spiritual nourishment is important, as this kind of work can be emotionally draining.

She also explained that the anthropologists will have the mammoth task of identifying each person’s remains, their age when they died, their gender, and will also look at what diseases were present. All this information will be collated for a full demographic and will be signed as a public record, with the assistance of the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA).

It is difficult for the untrained eye to know where each grave is situated, as its current state looks like it is just a piece of vacant land.

When asked how they will know where to find the remains, Ms Patrick said: “We have a fair idea how Christian burials take place. With the help of specialised machinery, we will walk slowly across the cemetery. The machines will help us to be able to detect bones or the wood of coffins. We will then mark it, and our crew will dig with shovels up unto a certain point, from where the archaeologists and physical anthropologists will take over.”

The church has called on the public whose ancestors were buried there to make contact, so that they could take part in the re-burial of their remains in a columbarium, which is a specially built, sealed church-like building alongside St Mark’s Church, Athlone.

According to the church’s media release, it had held public meetings under the auspices of the National Heritage Resources Act in 2012 and 2013 to consult the community on what to do with the cemetery. The meeting resolved that the remains should be exhumed, cremated and interred in the columbarium, where the names of those buried will be memorialised.

The Bishop of Table Bay, Garth Counsell, said: “Over the passage of time, people stopped visiting it and it is now very rarely, if ever visited. Apart from a few isolated headstones in deep grass, and scatterings of eroded perlemoen, there is no indication that it is a cemetery. We have not had the money to maintain it and we have received constant complaints from home-owners in the now built-up area of Garlandale, about the dumping of waste, vagrancy and crime.

“Following the procedures laid down the by law, we advertised the public meetings. Those who attended, voted on the way forward and we have official approval to begin the exhumations.

“We want to reach out to the community once again to ensure that anyone whose ancestors may be buried there, to get in touch with us. The exhumations will take some months, and when they are over we will invite families to join a service to mark the dedication of the columbarium,” Bishop Counsell said.

The diocese has not yet made a decision on what to do with the land when the exhumations are completed, but hopes it will be redeveloped and that the proceeds will cover the cost of the exhumations.

In the consultation process, the Athlone community strongly opposed a proposal for a service station on the land. They voted in favour of housing of at least the same standard as the nearby housing in Athlone.

Relatives of those buried in the cemetery can consult the burial records by emailing details to David Bailey at the Diocese of Cape Town at baileyd@ctdiocese.org.za