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Bodies piling up in Westmoreland - Officials hunt new space as public cemeteries on verge of spilling over by 2021

Published:Sunday | April 28, 2019 | 12:24 AMAlbert Ferguson - Gleaner Writer

Savanna-la-Mar Mayor Bertel Moore.
Savanna-la-Mar Mayor Bertel Moore.


Westmoreland municipal officials are scrambling to procure Crown land and forge public-private partnerships in a bid to mitigate the depletion of publicly owned burial space that is projected to run out in 24 months. The cemetery dilemma will become even more stark as they move to shut down backyard burials across the parish because of environmental concerns.

While burial plots are still available within the three major cemeteries owned and operated by the Westmoreland Municipal Corporation, infrastructural development and an expected rise in population density will put pressure on the current inventory, Bertel Moore, the mayor of Savanna-la-Mar, has told The Gleaner.

“I don’t have a big challenge at the present time, because there are still spaces, but I know within the next two years, we are going to be facing problems. As a council, we are running out of space in the town of Savanna-la-Mar, we are running out of space in Negril, we are also running out of space in Sheffield,” said Moore, who is also chairman of the parish’s municipal corporation..

“We have other smaller cemeteries in the rural areas of the parish with a lot of space. For instance, we have a cemetery in Prospect, which is in the Friendship division, and it has a lot of space there,” the mayor told The Gleaner. “When you go to Bethel Town, that cemetery has a lot of space there.”

The looming death of some cemeteries was highlighted in last week’s edition of The Sunday Gleaner where the National Environment and Planning Agency, a key stakeholder in the approvals process, said that Jamaica had only 25 per cent of the burial space it should have according to benchmark standards in its Development and Investment Manual. The country has more than 700 acres of cemetery space left, well short of the 2,700 dictated by its per-capita stipulation.

Suitable lands

Westmoreland has 24 acres of burial space left, but should have almost sevenfold more, or 189 acres.

Moore cited that the cemetery crisis is compounded because the municipal corporation, which oversees a population of 145,628 according to 2018 year-end data, does not own adequate and suitable lands to establish a new burial ground when the limited public burial spots run out by 2021.

“We have lands, but we don’t have that size land for a cemetery,” Moore said. “We have little patches here and there, but nothing that can accommodate the establishment of the cemetery.”

He said the corporation will be seeking to fast-track the process of gaining access to Crown lands held by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) and the Housing Association of Jamaica (HAJ). The corporation, according to Moore, has its eyes on establishing cemeteries in the Whitehall area of Negril, as well as Whitehouse, to cushion the fallout when burial grounds in Savanna-la-Mar, Negril and Sheffield are full to the brim.

He said further that there are suitable lands in Negril where the HAJ is building a housing scheme, but pleas to set aside property for a cemetery are not being viewed favourably.

“For instance, in Negril, there is land there, and I have been asking the HAJ for years now, from they started the Whitehall housing scheme, and they won’t do anything concerning it,” Moore said.

“They are putting up over 4,000 lots, and if you multiply each of those houses by three persons, where are we going to find a place to bury those people in the long run? They have put in a massive infrastructure for housing and they don’t think about having an area for burial.”

However, Moore, who is also the councillor for the Negril municipal division, said that until the conclusion of dialogue between the UDC and HAJ, the Westmoreland Municipal Corporation will be seeking to enter into partnerships with owners and operators of two privately owned funeral parlours with a view to procuring burial space.

“There are several private cemeteries that have a lot of space, especially Honeyghan Funeral Services, who just started its operations in the parish. We are going to approach them to see how best we can work together to prevent any serious problems,” he told The Gleaner.

Environmental concerns

Last week, on the heels of close to 100 requests per month and mounting environmental concerns, the Westmoreland Public Health Services moved to end the wholesale practice of home burials.

Steve Morris, the chief public health inspector for the parish, announced the plan after the health department observed that this year’s request for backyard or home burials kept mounting each month.

Four flood-prone areas of the parish have been blacklisted to prevent residents from burying their dead on family plots. “We are proposing that we blacklist some areas from home burials. Those that we have identified so far are Big Bridge, which includes Egypt Gardens, and McNeill Land,” said Morris.

“We have also looked at an area in Broughton because of its morass, and Strathbogie. We are going to blacklist these areas going forward, so whenever we see these applications coming in, they will not be approved,” the chief public health inspector insisted.

The high demand for home burials has also forced Danree Delancy, councillor for the Bethel Town division and deputy mayor of Savanna-la-Mar, to call for a parishwide ban and that a timeline be set by the local authority for the death of backyard burials.

“In the meantime, we should be educating our residents as to the negatives of home burials and get them in a mind frame to start using public or designated burial areas,” Delancy said.