Caledon’s Muslim burial crisis: ‘It shouldn't be like this’

The lack of burial space for the Muslim community in Caledon means people are forced to bury their loved ones outside of their hometown – at great emotional and financial cost.

76-year-old Mogamed Zain Cupido has been fighting for a proper allocation of burial space in Caledon to serve the Muslim community for almost three decades. Picture: Shamiela Fisher/Eyewitness News

CAPE TOWN - Bidding a final farewell to a loved one is always difficult, but doing so and not being able to bury that person in your hometown is even harder.

This is the case for some residents of the small farming town of Caledon in the Western Cape who are unhappy about the fact that there’s no space for Muslim burials in their hometown.

Residents who’ve spoken to Eyewitness News say that as a result, members of the community who die have to be buried in neighbouring towns.

At present, the allocated section for Muslim faith burials in the Overberg community is full and residents are demanding answers from the Theewaterskloof municipality.

Ever since 76-year-old Mogamed Zain Cupido moved to Caledon almost 30 years ago, he’s been fighting for a proper allocation of burial space in the town to serve the Muslim community.

After years of back and forth and enlisting the help of the Human Rights Commission in 2004 to facilitate meetings, a piece of land was made available with space for 112 graves.

But in 2014, the Muslim community in Caledon realised that the problem persisted when they went to the cemetery to bury a young man.

“There was no grave available because they buried other people there,” said Cupido.

The space allocated for Muslim deceased was filled by non-Muslims, and when Cupido raised that with the council, he was told the community should have fenced off the area.

“I went to the offices here and they said no, you didn’t put a fence around the land. And I said that’s wrong, you gave the property to us, never mind that we didn’t put fencing around it.”

DISTANT CEMETERIES

The lack of burial space in the town means Muslim families have to travel at least 32km to bury their dead - often a tricky prospect given the rituals surrounding death.

Funerals in Islam - called a Janazah in Arabic - follow fairly specific rites.

Islamic religious law calls for burial of the body as soon as possible. Burial is usually within 24 hours of death, except in the case of a person killed in battle or when foul play is suspected.

The distance of cemeteries with space for Muslim burials also means that poorer families can’t tend to and visit far-flung gravesites as often as they would like.

And while Cupido has been championing the fight, many other residents have the same concerns.

Laeekah Khatieb and her husband are also worried about the prospect of having to be buried in another town, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"My husband, who's about 60-years-old, asked me what happens if anything happens to him and because of COVID. He had a bout of the sickness and had a huge turn for the worst, and I went to our local imam at the mosque here and I asked him what happens when a Muslim dies, where do we have Janazah, what do I do.

“And he said, unfortunately, there is no burial grounds here in Caledon. We have to go to Strand. Which means I would have to procure a vehicle to carry a body from here to Strand and then pay for everything."

And while the Khatiebs are thinking about if and when tragedy may strike, the Albertus family has already experienced the worst.

Ganief Albertus lost his 23-year-old son Jamiel in a motorbike accident back in 2014, and they had to bury him in Wellington in the Boland - more than 118 kilometres away.

“We phoned Wellington's imam. We thought we can't bury him here because here's no ground here, so we must go back to where I came from in Wellington. But I've been staying in Caledon for more than 40 years".

Albertus said that at the time, they didn't know what to do. They were in shock at having lost their child, and now visiting and tidying the gravesite was tough.

"It's still difficult for us because it is far away from here and we must go there and clean the grave there and we stay in Caledon. It shouldn't be like this."

The town's Muslim leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Iwen, said that when the municipality had given them a portion a land, it was up to the community to secure the premises, but this was not done.

"Two times that the municipality gave us a portion of land, part of the entire issue was our fault was not to fence it. I used to ask for donations in the masjied, that please, the business people here, if you can donate anything so that we can secure that place.

“We didn't have Muslim janazahs in Caledon for quite some time. Then the other side, when it was full, they occupied our space. They just started to bury people on the side we were given.”

But Iwen said that in many cases people who had buried relatives elsewhere, had often chosen to do so.

"We do have the Muslim cemetery in Hermanus which is 32km from here and that one, it covers the Muslims of the Overberg. So, whenever anything happens here, we go to Hermanus. There are those, because their families or wherever they are coming from, they go bury their loved ones there."

STALLED PROGRESS

As to the lack of burial space in Caledon itself, Cupido met with the Theewaterskloof mayor and other officials in February this year, again raising his concerns.

“The mayor phoned me and said I must come to their office. I went there and they said ‘no, it can’t be, we will make a plan’.”

But Cupido is worried that there hadn't been progress since those discussions.

“I haven’t heard from them since that time. I don’t know what’s happening. If we die, where are we going to be buried?”

The Theewaterskloof Municipality said that it had done what it could - it provided the designated spot for Muslim burials in the original cemetery.

But over the years, there were no Muslim faith burial requests, so that space was used up.

The Theewaterskloof Municipality told Eyewitness News that there was a long-term plan in place to extend the existing cemetery by 15 hectares, but it would require infrastructure such as roads, water and sewerage, and therefore the timelines for delivery would depend on when budget could be made available.

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