Photographing the past

2010-07-21 00:00

WANDERING around cemeteries is maybe not everybody’s idea of a good time. But for genealogists and people tracing family history, graveyards are goldmines.

Accordingly the Ancestry24 website has launched a project to have every grave in South Africa and the information contained on their headstones photographed and made available on its website for free.

The project is in its infancy but already an arrangement has been made with the Cape Town municipality for permission to photograph the cemeteries in the Cape Town metropolitan area. A volunteer group, aptly called Friends of the Crypt, has begun taking photographs.

“They meet once a month and go to a cemetery armed with cameras and a water bottle,” says Ancestry24’s manager Heather MacAlister. “The water is sprayed on the grave stones so that the lettering comes up. Each person is allocated a row to photograph.”

Now Ancestry24 is looking for volunteers in the KwaZulu-Natal region to help photograph graves in cemeteries that have not been recorded (see box).

There are several cemeteries in Pieter­maritzburg, including those still in use such as Mountain Rise, Azalea and Lincoln Meade. But there are other cemeteries that are no longer in use, including the one in the “dead centre” of town that flanks both sides of Albert Luthuli Road. Many of the city’s 19th-century worthies are buried there, as well as the victims of the Charlestown rail disaster of 1895 and those who died in the concentration camp set up on Signal Hill, Prestbury, during the Anglo-Boer War.

While a burial register exists for this cemetery enabling you to find specific graves, there are other cemeteries where the registers have either been lost or never existed, such as the cemetery behind the shop and restaurant centre in Roberts Road. The Jewish and Muslim cemeteries situated there are still cared for but there are many other untended graves hidden in the undergrowth.

Another historic cemetery is the Georgetown cemetery in Edendale. Georgetown was the first settlement in Edendale and the cemetery contains a number of important graves, including that of political activist and writer Selby Msimang. The Msimang family plot is one of the few sets of graves in the cemetery that are clearly cared for as, for most of the year, the rest of this extensive cemetery is overgrown and difficult to access. However, in the winter months the grass gets burnt and the graves become visible.

That’s the case at the moment and it would be a good time to begin photographing and recording the graves. However there are many unmarked graves: final resting places indicated only by piled stones which, in some cases, have been scattered around. Some of those with headstones are in poor repair.

Sadly, the burial register for Georgetown cemetery seems to have disappeared. Apart from Selby Msimang there are several other notable people buried there. These include Reginald Rolfe Dhlomo, whose biographical novel of King Dingane KaSenzangakhona, uDingane, is the Zulu title longest in print. Local publisher Shuter and Shooter also published several other titles by Dhlomo including uShaka, uMpande, uCetshwayo and uDinizulu. Dhlomo, the brother of writer Herbert Dhlomo, was born in Edendale and was also a respected journalist and short-story writer. He was also the first black South African to publish a novel in English, An African Tragedy, published by the Lovedale Press in 1928.

Another writer buried there is Johannes Ndelwa Zama who broadcast on SABC and lectured in Zulu at Michaelhouse.

Georgetown was first settled in 1851 and has a unique history. The area has considerable tourist potential and this would be further enhanced if the cemetery were restored and the identities recovered of those buried there.

Does anyone know of the whereabouts of the burial register for George­town cemetery? If you do contact Stephen Coan at 033 355 1111 or e-mai­l

ANCESTRY24 has embarked on a nationwide project to help preserve our heritage and family history, by aiming to have every grave in South Africa photographed. Everyone has a relative who is buried in a grave somewhere in South Africa.

Please get involved and help photograph these headstones. Once the photographs have been taken and documented, the volunteers are encouraged to transcribe them so they can be added to our national database. See http://gallery.ancestry24. com/v/Cemeteries/

Contact us if you want to start and we will tell you if a cemetery has been covered or not. Get your school involved in our cemetery project. To find out more about how to educate children on the importance of preserving graveyards, check cemeteries

Should you wish to help photograph or transcribe headstones please contact us. If you also have photographs that you would like to send us because there are too many to upload, please contact us at info@ for our postal address.

Cemeteries that have been photographed in KwaZulu-Natal so far are :

• Redhill Orthodox Jewish Cemetery — 870 images;

• Redhill Reform Jewish Cemetery — 286 images;

• Stellawood Jewish Cemetery — 2 524 images;

• Stellawood Reform Cemetery — 322 images;

• Vryheid — 94 images; and

• Utrecht — 35 images.

E-mail or telephone between noon and 2.30 pm, weekdays, at 021 468 8957.

Check the website

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