I spent the morning in a graveyard. Not just any graveyard, but the 54ha Braamfontein Cemetery, the city’s first, laid out in 1887.
This is my third Sunday morning visit. Well, actually, it’s not a visit, it’s a headstone cleaning morning. And what fun it is, if you like graveyards, and history and stuff.
I’ve cleaned five headstones of moss and algae so far, and brought alive people’s memories from 1897, and thereabouts. Two weeks ago I made the acquaintance of William James Brown. He lived in Jeppestown, and died on 16 October 1897, at the age of 35 years and 11 months. He left a grieving wife, who described him as her “beloved husband”. The delicate metal lettering even had fullstops at the end of sentences.
As I scrubbed off the moss, and the letters began to shine again, 122 years after he was buried, I wondered what his life was like in the 11-year-old town. Further research by Sarah Welham, the mover and shaker behind the Friends of Jhb Cemeteries Whatsapp group, revealed that he was a shopkeeper in Jeppestown, married to Mabel.
How did Mabel cope after he died? She probably had children – was it a struggle to feed them, to educate them, to keep the household together? Did she keep the shop running? When did she die, and is she buried in the cemetery somewhere? Perhaps she went back to England, as that’s most likely where they came from.
Today I cleaned Martha Jane Angwin’s broken gravestone. A City Parks truck apparently knocked it to the ground, cutting it in half. She lived in Mayfair, and died on 12 April, 1913, at the age of 53. She was originally from St Just in Cornwall. Sarah confirms that she ran a boarding house in Mayfair.
Last week we had quite an adventure. A group of six or so guys turned over a heavy fallen granite headstone to reveal the inscription on the other side. It took a rope, a large steel rod, a dozen bricks, and lots of elbow grease.
Last week HC McCreary’s gravestone was brought alive. He was from Sacramento, California, and was “accidentally killed on 23rd January 1897, aged 27 years”. The stone was erected by the Gesondheids Comite of the Verlichting Departement - he must have worked for the Electricity Department when he died. I wonder what the accident was that killed him.
Another cleaner, Gillian, had an exciting experience today. She knew her great grandmother was buried in the cemetery, but didn’t know where. Sarah located her grave, and Gillian went to clean the grave and plant vygies. Hester Verdurmen died on 16 January 1905. “Hier rust onze lieve Moeder”, reads the simple stone on the ground. She was born in Kerkdriel, Gelderland in The Netherlands, says Gillian.
“She arrived in South Africa in 1903 with husband and five daughters. Shortly afterwards they all got scarlet fever. All of them survived except her. She was only 41 when she died. My grandmother was only three years old at the time.” How those daughters must have struggled without their mother. And the burden on the widowed husband.
Alan Buff, retired cemeteries man for many decades at City Parks, reckons that there are around 50 000 graves in the cemetery. That’s 2 000 graves per hectare, with the School of Mines section containing three or four burials per grave (due to unsafe mining practices with 3-4 deaths a day), and many other graves containing second burials.
I quizzed other gravestone cleaners - they were there because they love cemeteries, and history, and heritage. They love seeing the gravestones live again, like I do. Gillian says: "I love the fact that we are honouring ordinary citizens who were trying so hard to make a life for themselves in this often unforgiving city. Just love the mystery and history behind it all. I’m addicted."
So am I - I’ll be back next year.