EASTERN CAPE CEMETERY PROJECT
Cemeteries. Strange, spooky places. Poets love them: “Wespark”, “Elegy written in a Country
Churchyard”. Horror writers love them. Ghost hunters virtually live there. And the dead - they live there too. No, I don’t mean rest, or reside there. It is there that we look for them, visit them, talk to them. And it is there that we photograph them and record their details. Photo on the right:South End Cemetery (Old Section), Port Elizabeth, 21 July 2010. I don’t know who first thought of it, or maybe it was one of those ideas whose time had come, but somewhere in the forgotten past someone thought to record inscriptions on gravestones. Manuscript recordals and rubbings must have been the initial way to do it. But then the camera was invented. I imagine that the first people to use cameras in graveyards (I prefer the word for the fine Anglo-Saxon bluntness) were mediums (media doesn’t seem to work in this context) or sceptics looking for ghosts. At some point thereafter a truly gifted person started to take photographs of the inscriptions on headstones in order to record them.
On the left St George’s Park Cemetery, Port Elizabeth, 5 May 2010. When my mother, Carol BENEKE (neé STEWART), came to me one day in 2010 and said that she was off to photograph the St. George’s Park Cemetery I thought it was time to call in the gentlemen in white coats. I could not fathom why anyone would want to do that. Nevertheless, off she and my father, Lüdwic, went. Many cemeteries later, and after volunteering (like they do in the army, anyway) my services, I see the need and I recognise the urgency of the task. It is clear from the photograph that the graveyard is essentially abondoned to nature and vagrants. A panga is necessary to clear the scrub that has grown over these holy places. And far more than superglue is necessary to restore the memorials. It is disturbing to someone like me who has no vested interest in the loved ones lying there. I can only imagine that it is heart-rending to those who must, perforce attend and remember.
The photograph below is of a stone found in the Old Section of the South End Cemetery in Port Elizabeth. It was taken in July 2010. This graveyard was opened during the 19th century. Time and climate have weathered away any inscription that may once have been there. In this way are our memories wiped from recorded history and into legend and myth.This is the importance of the photographing of the cemeteries. It is important to genealogists in that it provides solid evidence of the facts adverted to on the stones.
But it is so much more important to those people whom the genealogists seek to assist with their research: the layman who is looking for his parents’ grave or posterity tracing its history.
The Eastern Cape Cemetery Project is a project of eGGSA, established to record and preserve the details found on the inscriptions of gravestones and memorials throughout the Eastern Cape. The photography is done by volunteers too numerous to mention all by name.
Another thankless task, and one which I can confirm is enough to make any sane man mad, or mad man sad, is the
naming of the photographs and the transcribing of the registers of the various graveyards. This task is especially important, as the registers contain information not necessarily found on the inscriptions. It is also vital as it helps to confirm that the correct person is in the correct grave. I am not able to speak to any first-hand knowledge of misplaced persons, but my mother advises that numerous persons have had to be sought and rehoused after certain, shall we say, “administrative” errors by the various entities operating in connection with a burial. The photgraph to the left was taken on 19 July 2010 Forest Hill Cemetery, Port Elizabeth, Extract from Register 8 August 2010
I know that I speak for all of us who know about the project, and all those who will come to find out about it, when I express our sincere appreciation to both the photographers and transcribers for their, often thankless and definitely time-consuming, task. You are the quiet foot-soldiers of genealogy.
The work of the Cemetery Project is
It may seem as though the task is all work and no play. I can assure you that this is not the case. There definitely is a lighter side to this business. I initially mentioned the ghost-hunters, mediums and sceptics. I must tell you that some eerie things have happened in the North End Cemetery here in Port Elizabeth.
On a perfectly normal day in the beautiful Bay two perfectly ordinary middle-aged persons, Carol and Lüdwic, attended in the cemetery. They were not looking for trouble. After all, what harm could be had taking photographs in this perfectly pleasant place? They took the photographs and nothing exceptional happened. No odd experiences. Nothing but the birds chirping in the trees and the occasional whirr of a digital camera.
South End Cemetery (Old Section), Port Elizabeth,
Upon arriving home the perfectly placid lady had the shock of her life. A photograph, perfectly clear and adequate when she checked it on the camera screen in the graveyard, suddenly showed the stone up blank. This could not be. All the other photographs were perfectly fine. She played around with the settings on her computer, but absolutely nothing showed up on the stone.
“But it wasn’t blank!” she thought in consternation. She telephoned her friend, Walter. Walter volunteered to stop by the graveyard and take the photograph again. Now you must understand that Walter is perfectly ordinary. There is nothing intrinsically strange about him. He went to the grave. He spoke nicely to the inhabitant of the grave. He prayed for the soul of the inhabitant of the grave. And he took the photograph. Upon returning home and putting it on the computer, dear Walter was flabbergasted. It was better than Carol’s. But it certainly wasn’t clear. The photograph would have to be retaken.
Off to the graveyard Carol went. She took the photograph again. And again the inscription did not show. Out of sheer frustration she put word out among fellow genealogists that she needed help manipulating the photograph to make out what it said. It was, after all, clear by this stage that taking a photograph was not the solution. A kind friend, Tiaan, who has these types of technical gadgets, ran the photograph through the full spectrum of whatsits and thingymajigs. The photograph after manipulation at least showed some detail. But Tiaan reports that it was the most difficult photograph he has ever had to work with.
Strange, right? But probably not as strange as the x-rated hanky-panky that you may stumble over if you aren’t careful. For further and better particulars of this, I’m sure Carol will be happy to oblige, if you call her to volunteer.
Go on. I dare you!
31 July 2012
North End Cemetery, Port Elizabeth, 14 March 2012,
before substantial manipulation.
North End Cemetery, Port Elizabeth, 14 March 2012,