It was not the the first cemetery established in the fledgling city of Johannesburg, that honour goes to a short lived cemetery that was bounded by Bree, Diagonal and Harrison Streets. The “inhabitants” were relocated to Braamfontein Cemetery in 1897, although the grand dame of Johannesburg was established in 1888.
Somebody once asked “which cemetery do you consider to be “home”?” I didn’t really have to think about it because Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg is probably my “home”. It was the second cemetery where I went to photograph war graves, and I keep on coming back to it.
I suspect that when it originally opened it must have been a dry dusty place, trees were sparse in the early Johannesburg, so these would have been planted much later, leaving the legacy of green that we have today. The cemetery is laid out along a single road that heads west towards the railway lines that ran from Braamfontein yards through to Sturrock Park.
On either side of this road the various sections are laid out. Turning right at the Dynamite Memorial, the cemetery extends Northwards before petering out at the fence at Enoch Sontonga Ave. On either side of this short road is the African and other “non white” sections. An extensive Anglo Boer War Plot is also found along this road.
At some point in our history the African section was ploughed under and all that remains now is the Enoch Sontonga Memorial and a green field.
The cemetery filled up very rapidly, and by 1910 the “New Cemetery” was opened, and burials in Braamfontein were scaled down. However, this the place where the founders of Johannesburg have come to rest. Within it’s walls are soldiers from the ABW, Rand Revolt, 1907 strike, WW1, WW2 and the Border War. There is a VC holder, the Foster Gang, a Titanic victim is mentioned in it, there are at least 4 baronets, a cartoonist, Edgar Wallace’s daughter, 6 unknown Indian soldiers, the writer of our national anthem, a famous artist and her family, the 1896 dynamite explosion memorial, 3 conscientious objectors, a Muslim cemetery next to a Jewish cemetery, a famous poet, a family of stone masons who made many of the monuments in it, the founder of a pasta company, and a burgher from the Boer War. And those are just the things I can think about off the top of my head.
It has some magnificent artwork in it, and a collection of headstones that are still legible 100 years after they were erected. In some areas the trees have grown into each other and make some areas dark and dingy. During a storm it can be a fearsome place, yet it can have moods that make you gasp in amazement.
I have seen the early registers, and from what I can see the first person officially buried there was a little boy called John, who was buried 9 April 1888, in grave number 1. He was only 1 year, 11 months and 10 days old. The grave is close to the office, in the area set aside for “Pioneers graves”.
The cemetery has seen a lot of strife too and contains 77 Commonwealth burials from the Second World War and 11 from the First World War, with roughly 400 Boer War graves within its walls. There is also a large Police plot where many of the casualties from the 1922 Rand Revolt are buried. And, I believe many of the miners that died in the revolt are also buried in unmarked graves along the fence.
There is also an extensive Jewish area in the cemetery, which was always maintained in an immaculate condition up till recently. And in my recent explorations I have been able to see so many of the graves of the early Jewish community from Johannesburg.
It is very difficult to show the cemetery in all its glory. Cemeteries are the type of places that you only visit on rare occasions, and only those who explore them can really appreciate the history and beauty inside of them. Taphophiles generally understand the nature of places like this, and Braamfontein is a very popular destination for day tours. As morbid as it sounds, there is no other place where you can experience your own mortality when in the midst of so much death.
DRW © 2012-2018. Images recreated 25/03/2016, new images added 22/01/2017, added link 04/03/2018