A Grave Situation: the death of a historical cemetery

2013-12-04 00:00

Trish Beaver

PEOPLE either love graveyards or hate them, depending on their expectations of death and the afterlife. For me, in a philosophical sense, graveyards are a gentle reminder that time is ticking for all of us and we do not know when the day of our reckoning will dawn.

When I first came to Pietermaritzburg I stayed in a bed and breakfast close to the Commercial Road Cemetery, where many of the first settlers are buried. I was warned by the B ’n B owner not to go inside the cemetery alone as there were vagrants living in the graveyard. He warned me that on a hot day, the stench of urine is overpowering.

I stayed away from the graveyard, but, often as I drove past, I would see the ageing headstones and wonder who was buried there. Gravestones are not just stones marking the spot where people have been buried; collectively they tell a story of a generation.

Gravestones are like pages of a book; each page turned is a clue to what happened to a previous generation. How they lived, how they died and what their generation had to deal with.

Vandalism has robbed the stately headstones and ornate statues of their once proud heritage. Crosses have been knocked down and statues of angels are headless on top of the small graves of children.

Marble slabs have been stolen to be “reassigned” to new owners by unscrupulous vandals. Ornate metal gates and fences have been stripped and sold to scrap-metal dealers, and with every deed, the historic value of this site has been depleted.

Kayla-Ann Osborn, manager of the Heritage Guesthouse in Miller Road, which backs onto the cemetery, says that they have often called the police to stop vandals who are in the process of chopping up gravestones and removing marble.

She said: “Two weeks ago, we saw two men there moving a marble statue around, and when we shouted at them they hid behind the graves. The police were too afraid to go inside the cemetery at night.”

Osborn says the police have arrested people in the past for vandalising the graves. Gravestones will naturally be damaged by the elements, as wind, hail and the sun beat down on the human-made edifices, but in this cemetery, the main damage has been done by people. There has been no respect for the dead, or for their resting places.

In the past, Satanists have used this place for their bizarre practices and the unemployed have gone there to use the headstones to hang their washing, after cleaning their clothes in the nearby river.

One overcast Friday morning, I meet John Deare and Eckhard von Fintel, who are regular visitors to the Commercial Road Cemetery. As members of the Pietermaritzburg Genealogical Society, they often go to look for references to dead family members who were relatives of people living abroad.

They have a key for the padlock that secures the gates of the palisade fencing. Vandals intent on stealing leap over the fence. The men are used to the chaos and decay of the graveyard, but this time they are extremely pleased to hear the buzz of the grass cutters at work in the graveyard. In recent years, the municipality has been unable to maintain the graveyard and the grass grows waist high and the graves are hidden from view.

Local company BSI Steel sponsored the grass cutting at the cemetery, and spent more than R200?000 in the past two years.

Craig Parry said: “We wanted to bring it back to its former glory. The cemetery is situated on the main road leading to the city, so we wanted visitors to notice that we look after historic land marks.

“We stopped when the council showed complete apathy. There were some willing participants in the Parks Department, but even though they were keen to help, their hands were tied due to a lack of funds.

“They would not even remove the rubble or bags of grass we had collected.

“Our offer was to help while the council was under stewardship, and now we believe it has had ample opportunity to sort out its finances.”

Now the grass will grow wild. In uneven clumps, indigenous yellow flowers grow abundantly, and despite the unusual appearance of a group of municipal workers, there is a peaceful calm.

Deare said: “The graveyard was divided into religious sections to serve the main communities of the time. On the one side of the road are the mainly English churches’ graves and on the other the Afrikaans and Presbyterian churches’ graves.”

Gravestones in the previous century were ornate, and even modest gravestones are quite well-constructed. Most of the stone was procured from the nearby Townbush sandstone quarry and this choice of stone has not helped the ageing process.

The marble headstones (those that have not been stolen) have weathered better, and the granite ones seem to have weathered the best. The headstones make for interesting reading, as sometimes the circumstances of their deaths are recorded on the headstone.

Young Cecil Evelyn Clarke was killed on the 13th of July 1911 as a result of an accidental gunshot at Hancock Grange on the Union Bridge at Umzinkulu.

This sentence immediately conjures up images of a tragedy. Certainly, he would not have had access to the modern hospital facilities we have today.

A small child’s grave, no bigger than a cardboard box, shows that a little girl died at two weeks. Perhaps she was a victim of an epidemic?

There are many small graves belonging to children who died in birth, buried next to their mothers.

A headless statue of a small girl child looks at the passing cars. Many years ago, she would have watched wagons trundling past and heard the click-clacking of horse shoes. It was an era of bravery and adventure. Men were soldiers and explorers, and those who died had testaments inspired by their courage under fire. It was also an era of hardship.

Women died in childbirth and their small children died due to a lack of medical facilities. It was an era when civic duty came first and building a country was left to the common folk. Highly esteemed people were ordinary bakers, wagon makers, ironmongers, gold prospectors and printers.

Those who had a formal education quickly became the people to establish the skeleton of the city’s first laws.

In those early days, black people were usually buried close to their places of birth, in rural homesteads, according to their traditions. Apartheid was not yet entrenched.

There are a few graves belonging to black priests in the Commercial Road Cemetery who were early converts of the missionaries.

Most of the people who came to Pietermaritzburg came from England and they all had a dream to make a future for themselves in a strange country. Deare said: “We find that there are sketchy details of the men who came out here, but the women got a raw deal as often they are just described as the wife of so and so.”

The grass cutters decide to have a lunch break and the cemetery is deathly quiet. They hang their jackets on the headstones and drink their water, eat their sandwiches, and are seemingly at ease in their surroundings.

For the past few years, the ornamental entrance to the cemetery has been used by vagrants to sleep in in winter and smoke dagga. A few dagga plants have sprouted next to the graves of the Oxenham family. Perhaps they are turning in their graves.

Deare carries the tools of the trade on this grave-hunting expedition: a paintbrush and a bottle of baby powder.

The paintbrush is to brush off the dust and dirt that have accumulated on the graves, and the baby powder brings up the lettering on graves that are difficult to decipher.

Von Fintel records the graves with his camera and marks the spot on the cemetery map. They discuss which graves have been damaged since their last visit. In the early days, some of the tomblike graves were smashed open as vandals believed that the graves might contain treasures. Unlike Egyptian tombs, the English settlers and the Voortrekkers went to the afterlife empty handed. Only their headstones are of value.

Deare said: “The British War Commission comes to South Africa once a year to make sure that the war graves are well-maintained and so Fort Napier is well-kept and other British war memorials are well-maintained. But sadly, ordinary historical graves are left to rot.

“These headstones and the people who lie beneath them, are from an era that should not be forgotten because if we do not remember the past, then we cannot see the future.”

The cemetery was laid out in the typical style of Voortrekker towns, where the cemetery was situated on the perimeter of the town. The early Voortrekkers buried their dead in what is now known as the Voortrekker section of the Commercial Road Cemetery. Burial registers were not kept before 1889 and those who were buried before then are not known. The earliest inscription on a tombstone is that of Hendrik van den Berg, who died on September?5, 1839.

Deare said: “Pietermaritzburg started cremations only in 1921, and in 1948, the Pietermaritzburg Corporation assumed control of the cemetery and it was closed for further burials except for exceptional circumstances. It handed over all registers and maps to the Natal Society for safekeeping. All burials from 1948 have taken place at the Mountain Rise Cemetery.”

Records on those buried have been collected by the Natal Midlands Family History Society and the Pietermaritzburg branch of The Genealogical Society of South Africa.

In one corner of the cemetery, a group of Catholic nuns have been buried. Like their appearance, their graves are simple and unadorned.

One lone mysterious grave with Chinese inscriptions is a misnomer in this plethora of Christian graves.

If you would like to see more, go to the YouTube link and see more of the story: http://youtu.be/u9V9pmUq08c


MANY important people, both famous and infamous, are buried in the Commercial Road Cemetery. Below are just a few of the people whom researchers have uncovered in their search to discover more about the people who belong to the names on the gravestones.

Bishop of Colenso is not buried here, but his wife and daughters are. He was buried at the front of the altar in St Peter’s church (Old Cathedral).

Louis Triegaardt was the eldest son of the famous Voortrekker leader Louis. He is buried in the Voortrekker section of the graveyard.

Edward Butto n was a prospector and was the first person to discover gold at Eersteling. He became the first gold commissioner in the Transvaal­.

Sir Theophilus Shepstone and his family are buried in this cemetery. He was sent up from the Cape as the first diplomatic agent to the native tribes. In later life, he became the administrator of the Transvaal.

Peter Davis was a London compositor and he found work on The Natal Witness newspaper under Angus Buchanan, who was the founder of the paper. Davis launched his own newspaper in Durban and this newspaper became what is now known as the Daily News.

Alfred Kershaw was a draper and clothing manufacturer from York in England. He arrived in Natal by ship and established himself in Pietermaritzburg. He became the mayor of Pietermaritzburg in 1881.

John Houshold was a historical figure because he was the first local man to build and fly his own glider in 1871 on the family farm. Unfortunately, after its first flight, it was destroyed and never rebuilt.

Jesse Smith was a stonemason and his fine work can be found in many cemeteries across Natal. He came from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, and he died in 1900.

James Hyslop was a medical superintendent in the Pietermaritzburg infirmary for the mentally disturbed. He served as a colonel for the medical services in World War 1.

Frans Wolhuter was a Voortrekker and a shopkeeper in later years. He had a shop in Longmarket Street that sold goods that were “imported” from the Cape colony. He was also a director of the Natal Bank and started a small insurance company. He had nine children with his wife Johanna Helena Bester.

Joshua Hershensohn was the son of Dutch Jews and he was born in Russia. He fought in the Crimean war. He went first to the Cape and then came to Natal. He was the founder of two political organisations and was also responsible for the use of Dutch in schools and in public administration business.

Willem Petrus Rousseau was the first NG Kerk minister in Pietermaritzburg. He was said to be very intelligent and could read the Bible in Greek at the age of 10 old. He studied at the University of Stellenbosch and graduated­ at the age of 19.

Source: https://www.news24.com/Archives/Witness/A-GRAVE-SITUATION-the-death-of-a-historical-cemetery-20150430