VOORTREKKER Road from Salt River to Maitland is dotted with a ratatouille of suburban shops with dirty windows and trinkets. Large trucks emit black smoke and make a noise, and taxis rush by as if a wildfire is chasing them.
You see Johnny Clifton Motor Spares (in his day, a hero in the Hell Drivers community, a speedster of note). There are many panel beaters and scrap yards, and on the bustling pavements people braai boerewors and steaks.
Outside Koeberg Fisheries, women emit blue puffs of cigarette smoke, while others have packets of potato chips. Through the open window, you smell salt and vinegar.
There are undertakers with dark windows, hearses with granny curtains, an ancient pawnshop, charismatic churches where God will punish you if you sin, and pubs where old winos try to quench their thirst.
Then you turn into the Maitland Cemetery, leaving the hubbub of the living behind you.
When I get out of the car, I hear it. Silence, then birds chirping. Spring, but in a winter landscape.
The sun shines sharply on endless tombstones after devastating floods. The earth was angry. Here and there, still pools of water shine like aluminium. The ground under my feet is soft, sometimes muddy.
I see many mausoleums rising dramatically towards the heavens with angels and depictions of Jesus on the cross. There are smaller graves, some of the words faded from years of exposure to bad weather and heatwaves.
One Henry O'Dea died on 14 March 1939 aged 29. This is the same day the “timeless Test", the longest cricket match to date at 12 days (with nine days of play) was abandoned in Durban because the English team had to board the ship back home.
Cricket would certainly not have been on the mourners' minds as Henry's body sank into his dark bed.
Here and there lies a withered plastic flower, a broken jug; I see an old photo of a beautiful young woman on one tombstone, the words illegible. I wonder if she is still remembered and by whom.
The baby graves make me sad; in fact, there is a general desolation about this place, between the beautiful and the broken.
I warned you!
The deadly quiet is interrupted when I hear a woman's cross voice. I walk closer, just far enough away but also near enough to hear.
There are two men and a woman. Their little red car is parked to one side.
“I warned you!" she shouts at a tombstone. “But no, you wanted to be a big shot. You wanted to join the gangs, and look at you now. I prayed, I begged, but you wouldn't listen to your own mother."
I decide to leave; I'm intruding on their grief. When I look back, I see her on her knees, touching the tombstone and crying bitterly.
Later they drive slowly past me and I see all three sitting in silence.
I talk to a few homeless people who live in informal tent structures just off Voortrekker Road. The families want to remain anonymous and don't allow photos to be taken.
They live opposite the cemetery and tell me weekends, especially Saturday nights, are not pleasant. Cars rush past them at high speed and often collide with the stone walls of the cemetery.
You hear the screams, the steel crunching, wall stones breaking and then silence. The ambulances and police arrive and red and blue lights flash in the night. At sunrise on Sundays there is sometimes blood on the tar.
Where there’s smoke...
During my visit to the crematorium, I see a nice garden with a bench. A refuge amid the sadness.
There is a courtyard for niche graves behind the crematorium where you can walk around and place flowers. The first plaque I see is that of Fritz Sonnenberg, one of the Cape's most progressive mayors between 1951 and 1953.
He was also one of the founding members of the law firm Sonnenberg, Hoffmann & Galombik. According to stories I have heard, he was a great raconteur, an extrovert who loved community work.
He was a man who liked horse racing and visiting Monaco. Now his ashes lie here, in a dark niche.
Another memorial stone that touched my heart reads: “Bosman Wium. Tot weer siens my bokkie-lief. Van verlangende bokkie Sannie.” (Bosman Wium. Until we meet again, my dear. From your longing little dear, Sannie.) Oh, Sannie.
Someone writes on Facebook: “Just heartbreaking when you see the coffin going down below where the body gets cremated, and the platform rising again without the coffin.”
Online I read that if no one identifies or claims your body, you are cremated anonymously and for free. The Western Cape Department of Health and Wellness says 290 unidentified bodies have lain unclaimed in morgues since the beginning of this year.
I think about Koos du Plessis' lyrics: “As niemand van jou hoor nie; / As niemand van jou weet nie, / Kan jy tog niks verloor nie / Kan niemand jou vergeet nie.” (“If no one hears from you; / If no one knows about you, / You can't lose anything after all / No one can forget you.")
When I turn back, I see smoke billowing from one of the chimneys. It disperses until there is nothing left. Up there is the blue.
All that remains on earth are the bones.
Quick facts about the cemetery
According to the City of Cape Town, the cemetery is 3.5km long and covers 14.2 hectares. It has 17 gates and a fence of 11km. The earliest graves date back to 1886.
The city Recreation and Parks department maintains the place, but it is sometimes difficult to get around to everything because there is vandalism and people get drunk and break bottles.
Caring for the graves depends on families, but the authorities cut the grass seven times a year and maintain the grounds. Some families complain about pools of water and graves being flooded, but officials on the site regularly pump the water to a lower level.
On the day of my visit, I walked about 3km and drove a few kilometres. I can confirm that it is generally clean, although there are tombstones that have collapsed over the decades.
It is an enormous piece of land that has to be maintained, and if wire fences are cut by wrongdoers it is surely a social problem. The Recreation and Parks department can hardly do anything about it; yet it spends a lot of money to make the place look as pretty as possible.
Quick facts about the crematorium
The little church will be 90 years old in November. About 40% of Cape Town's population prefer cremation. According to the City of Cape Town, 450-500 people are cremated every month. Saturdays are the most popular for funerals and the crematorium is allowed to do up to 42 cremations a day.
During cremation, organs, soft tissue, hair and skin burn away, while the water in the body evaporates. The body parts that do not burn are bone fragments.
A cremation can last from 90 minutes to three hours. There is a unique steel plate number for each coffin.
Scorsese’s thoughts about death
GQ interviewed 80-year-old film director Martin Scorsese: “These days when he runs into someone he knows, Scorsese said, the partings have taken on a new significance. ‘I saw an old friend a few weeks ago here; my God, we’ve known each other since 1970. I hadn’t seen her in years. But by the time she left, we embraced and held onto each other for, like, 10 minutes, not knowing if we would see each other again.’”
* Experience a short drive through the Maitland cemetery:
♦ VWB ♦
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