Serene resting place has a long history

The first building of the Clare Estate Umgeni Hindu Crematorium, now referred to as hall number 1. The foundation stone was laid by Mohunlal Ramlakan on June 25, 1961.

The first building of the Clare Estate Umgeni Hindu Crematorium, now referred to as hall number 1. The foundation stone was laid by Mohunlal Ramlakan on June 25, 1961.

Published Dec 2, 2023


Durban — The Clare Estate Crematorium has a fascinating 109-year history, from open-fire cremations next to a cattle-dipping tank, to a tranquil resting place.

According to the Clare Estate Umgeni Hindu Crematorium website, the present grounds were ceded to the Hindu residents of Clare Estate in 1904. Until then, open-fire cremations took place on private properties.

Land owner John Henry Ernest Wall donated the first land to the early residents of Clare Estate.

Thegraj Kassie, who has been the secretary of the estate for more than 25 years, shared some of the history with the Independent on Saturday.

“If we go back to when the Indians arrived in 1860, there were no services for non-whites and that also meant there was no crematorium. The Indian community of Clare Estate decided to build a cemetery, and as time progressed they built a crematorium,” he said, adding that it was a solution to the lack of space for burial ground.

The society grew from hall number 1 to a boardroom for meetings, another building for the incinerators, and people were also employed.

Now there are two halls that can seat about 500 people, and another that accommodates 250.

“We keep up with regulations by improving our technology. The Atmospheric Emission Licence regulates air pollution and guides us on air control. With the old technology, we did not control our pollution. In 2018, we installed new cremators with the right technology. We have six incinerators,” he said.

Kassie said although it was still called the Clare Estate Umgeni Hindu Crematorium, it was used by all communities because of the great shortage of burial sites, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We serve all races and that was evident during the pandemic. We operate 365 days a year and provide a peaceful environment, with the tuckshop area, shelter and the prayer hall for the families,” said Kassie.

The “old” crematorium was built in 1964 alongside sunken ground bound by four iron poles that formed a rectangle, adjacent to the present official granite name plaque. It marks the site of the open-air funeral pyre.

The Clare Estate Umgeni Hindu Crematorium hall number 1 in 2020. | Alan Gangasagar

Earlier, a dipping tank used by cattle owners in the district was built on a part of the cemetery grounds. They paid a levy of one penny (1d) per head of cattle to use the tank and the money was used to maintain the crematorium. The dip was closed in 1940.

The Clare Estate Cemetery and Crematorium Committee was formed in 1930. Burials became more orderly, with proper demarcation of graves and record-keeping.

When the outer areas of Durban were incorporated into the greater borough, strict city by-laws were enforced from 1938.

Authorities frowned upon open-air cremations, and all private cemeteries had to be registered, the first of which was Kewal Singh.

To raise funds for the upkeep and maintenance of the cemetery, every land-owner or resident of the area was asked to pay five shillings, the equivalent of 50c, annually, which included membership of what would become the Clare Estate Umgeni Hindu Crematorium Society.

The first plan of the crematorium building was drawn in 1954, but it was not until a determined fund-raising drive from 1961 to 1964 – with some committee members contributing the fortune of R2 000 themselves – that led to the official opening ceremony by Baljore Gangaram on May 3, 1964.

Disaster struck in September 1987 when a storm washed away access from Clare Estate to the crematorium, via Clare Road and the Palmiet River Bridge. Undertakers and mourners had to make a long detour via Mountbatten Drive and New Germany Road in spite of pleas to the Durban City Council to re-open the bridge.

At the time, the Umgeni Crematorium Society had been carrying out open-pyre cremations near the current Umgeni Railway Station for the Gujerati community. This land was reclaimed by the SA Railways.

The Umgeni Crematorium Society moved to a site in Springfield.

However, the town planners would not permit a crematorium in an industrial area, and the Umgeni Crematorium Society approached the Clare Estate Committee to merge the two organisations. The merger was finalised in 1994 and named the Clare Estate Umgeni Hindu Crematorium Society.

Independent on Saturday