Doing the graveyard shift

Doing the graveyard shift

AT HOME. Westpark Cemetery caretaker Martin Moshatane rides his bicycle through the cemetery. He lives on the site.

On a search for something chilling, eerie and ominous we set out to visit Westpark Cemetery at dusk to interview the caretaker who lives among the dead.

But he sets the record straight, telling us if we are hunting for the ghoulish we will not find it between the smooth, marble tombstones there.

As we walk through the graveyard in the pitch dark, guided by head gardener and caretaker Martin Moshatane, he tells us how scared he was when he started working on the graves in 1984 and how his fear slowly dissipated.

“It was so difficult, I was so scared because it was the first time in my life to see staff working in a cemetery,” Moshatane says.

When he was growing up he had been told stories about ghosts roaming in cemeteries.

“We were told there is a ghost in the cemetery.

“If a person dies, the result is a ghost. I was scared of that.

“I thought if I am working here, I will see something visiting me, then I said this is not the right place to work.”

His initial fears were perpetuated by his father who said he should come home rather than work in a cemetery.

He says some people feel trepi dation towards those who work and live in a cemetery because “if you are walking with the dead, your mind won’t be well”.

But that was then.

Now Moshatane no longer zig-zags around grave sites with reluctance.

He does not wonder about ghosts.

In fact, in the 36 years he has been tending cemeteries around Johannesburg he has never experienced anything paranormal.

“I am not scared. I could only be scared of a human being.

” If I saw anything in the cemetery at night it would be a human being and then I could run and hide,” said Moshatane smiling.

While some people might regard it as taboo, living in a graveyard is anything but abnormal to Moshatane.

He was more than happy when he could move into the modest house on the same property as thousands of graves, marked by their tombstones.

He says he no longer needs to catch buses or taxis to work and he can enjoy a stroll or a bicycle ride around the cemetery every evening without having to worry about traffic.

Working at a cemetery caused Moshatane to ask many questions about his own mortality.

He recollects how, whenever he saw a hearse coming into the graveyard, he would wonder when it would be his turn.

But after so many years tending to graves, he no longer has those kind of questions.

“I know my day will come and then I will go there.”

Moshatane also teaches us a lesson in humility.

When asked how he feels about tending to the graves of prominent politicians and sports icons and celebrities who are buried in the Heroes’ Acre, he looks slightly bewildered before he responds: “To me I see it’s the same. When we are dead we are equal, there is no difference.

“There is no one that I can say in death, this one is more special than that one.”

Moshatane continues to explain: the ground they are buried in is the same.

“We don’t have any special ground for the rich people or the poor people.”

Moshatane did say there was one grave site that elicits a strong memory – one that has stayed with him for more than three decades.

He recalls the 1985 Westdene Dam accident in which 42 school children were killed when a bus crashed into the dam and sank.

“It was the first time in my life I have seen a burial like that.

“We had 42 funerals in one day – and I can’t forget that,” Moshatane says.

Even now when he passes the memorial in Heroes Acre he still feels emotional.

Saturday Citizen leaves Westpark cemetery without hearing any mysterious horror stories – but not without meeting a good man who says he lives in a normal place that just happens to be a little quieter.

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