Life among the dead. Words and images by John Robinson.
2008 Pietermaritzburg KwaZulu-Natal South Africa.
The flowered field has called once again, �come and return to the slopes of the dead once again.� Come and see if things are as they were on that day you last laid down the dead.
Clouds lie low over the place as if protecting this field of the dead, Mountain Rise Cemetery in Pietermaritzburg South Africa is a place where rows of wood and stone stand testament to their final claims. Nothing moves here at first glance, this is of course the place of the dead.
Come and see the place of the dead, the place where there is life too, the life that is among the dead, movement in this place of final rest.
Bread cutters are rugged brush cutters operated by men and woman dressed in black, they are fitted with mask and gloves and scythe their way through the grass that over grows the grave markers and stones. They are followed by others who patch the raw stumps of trees and brush with pink poison. The very trees that tempt to upturn the grave stones of this place.
The brush cutting crew section off the grave yard and bring back to sight the wooden crosses almost consumed by the grasses that once owned this place. They work for a day here then may be seen on the side of the city’s roads the next. They cut the grass for the council and should they do it well then a permanent job here where more of the same could well be their reward.
The day is starting it’s cycle again as men gather round a hole supplied by the city and decide what it is that is needed to make ready for a dead relative. Taking turns each one enters the hole and cuts back the earth as directed by those above, he is replaced by another as he tires as time is short. The hearse will soon arrive and the body will need to be interned in a fashion that is becoming of the ancestors. On top it’s only the church with it’s surface ceremony but down here the men take their turns in the pit ensuring that the ancestors will find things as they have always wanted things to be.
The cutters of the grass don’t stop their task as mourners gather in numbers so great that vendors of ice cream gather and sell their ware.
The pastors and ladies of the church sway in tune with the songs of departing, grandmothers and small children stand and watch the casket of one who should have be shouldering the young, instead, is born by others and lowered into a grave. Between these young and old, there are those who sell refreshments and others who while they parade in the latest fashions of the living watch the others and the ceremony of the dead.
The soil and clumps of grass are placed on the filled grave, numbers are placed at the foot of the departed and a pine cross carries the name, age and date of the one who has joined the many of this place.
A young woman leads her grandmother across the field she looks for the place that her mother lies, picking weeds away from the soil that covers the spot she makes thing as best as she can and waits for the old woman to finish her prayers. The place is filled with the simple wooden crosses, little else is added it seems that the money for stone is not yet ready, silk flowers and a dry jar tell of the longing in the heart, in a while the old woman will be walked away and the cutters will be kings of this place once again.
Clouds form a back drop against which birds rise up out of the long grass, they lift up into the sky with songs of life, they are not of this dead, yet they are the dead’s only hope of retaining a simple celebration of life in this place.
The soil settles down, asserting a weight of permanence on the human remains. It is only the grass trees and brush that continues to grow. The bread cutters, mothers, and birds will always be in this place when the calling returns.
(Author’s note. Though Pietermaritzburg is recognised as an epicentre of global HIV infection, and though there are now over 30 undertakers operating in the city, due to a lack of concrete medical records is is unlikely that anybody will ever really know who was in the end a victim of the global Human Immunodeficiency Virus.)
background to life among the dead.
i embarked on this project after taking some european hiv/aids visitors to see the mountain rise cemetery as a way to visualise the pandemic in the pietermaritzburg area (40% infected rate).
Pietermaritzburg and kwazulu-natal is now a global epicentre for hiv infection.
the visitors were only here for half a day so the extended visits to the homes etc. of people were just not possible.
why the cemetery? well on average 10 funerals per Saturday of which many are young people who die of a “long illness”
zulu culture is a culture where ancestors are respected and consulted on many things and so the grave site of an ancestor holds importance, an ancestor is both a departed child, brother or parent. so returning to the grave is ongoing. the christian church is melded in to this in varying degrees depending on the family.
why did i return to take photos in the grave yard? on the day we visited the site the natural grasses had overgrown the graves, as if nature had returned and taken back what was hers in a way, all that we as humans are was to nature a passing phase. many graves (read lives) are now lost as the soil settled down and plant life returned and covered up.
it’s the birds in the cemetery that continue to celebrate life.
i returned as you can see and included the grass cutters, with their grim reaper appearance, the daughter and her mother who were only able to keep the weeds at bay, the cost of a head stone is more then many can afford.
i returned again to watch a grave being prepared in zulu tradition. the coffin must be laid in the grave and a roof of sawn logs is placed above the coffin to make a room. on top of the logs grass mats are laid to prevent the soil from falling onto the coffin creating “a space to breathe”.
i returned to watch the funerals on the weekend as said above there can be up to 10 funerals on a day with the accompanying vendors and mourners.
i have on my visits seen the rapid filling up of the cemetery, the death rate in the city has increased, and the visual material that i found there gripped me to spend time in this place of the dead and document the living goings on there. i am interested in the cultural issues of death, i am also interested in the iconic, as death has become more frequent here in pietermaritzburg the cemetery is filled with icons too.
funerals are now a every weekend event for many people, t.b. is rampant aids is rampant, yes it is not everybody who dies of aids but death is in everybody’s experience here in pietermaritzburg.
CONTACT US TO NEGOTIATE A PACKAGE FOR YOUR SPECIFIC NEEDS
AFRICA MEDIA ONLINE MAY AMEND THIS POLICY AT ANY TIME. AMENDED TERMS SHALL BE EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY UPON THE POSTING OF THE REVISED POLICY AND ANY SUBSEQUENT ACTIVITY IN RELATION TO THE WEBSITE SHALL BE GOVERNED BY SUCH AMENDED TERMS. IF YOU DO NOT AGREE WITH ANY TERM IN THIS POLICY, PLEASE DO NOT USE THIS WEBSITE.
This Agreement was last revised on 31-03-2020.
Enquiries: Kate Dearlove
Note: Your password will be generated automatically and sent to your email address.