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Atan Cemetery: Even in death, the poor and rich are treated differently

Rich and powerful people live differently. They reside in posh houses in exclusive estates that are beautifully designed and sometimes over looking the beach, in…

Rich and powerful people live differently.

They reside in posh houses in exclusive estates that are beautifully designed and sometimes over looking the beach, in areas like Banana Island, Ikoyi and Victoria Island, while the poor reside in shacks and rundown houses in densely populated areas such as Ajegunle, Amukoko, Ojo, Mushin and the likes.

Even where the rich and poor reside in the same community, their life style and stories greatly differ.

Just as they differ in life, so do they in death.

A burial site overgrown with grasses
A part of the private (B) section at Atan Cemetery
Burial site of Second World War soldiers at Atan Cemetery
The barricaded site of the second world war 2 burial fence, at Atan Cemetery, Yaba in Lagos.
The semi private gravesides is far from clean and conducive

A visit to Atan Cemetery in Yaba, Lagos, explains that. A certain portion of the cemetery contains the largest concentration of World War II era graves in Nigeria, while the “popular side” is reserved for the poor.

This place has been overtaken by weeds and reptiles due to poor management.

A staff of Yaba Local Government, posted to the cemetery, told our correspondent that the burial ground covers about 25 hectares of land, and is one of the oldest cemeteries of its kind in Nigeria.

The official, who pleaded anonymity because he was not granted permission to speak to the press, revealed that the cemetery contains the largest concentration of the World War II graves in Nigeria, with a total number of about 411 fallen heroes buried there at different times in the past.

However, a cursory look at the environment shows that it is indeed a notable landmark in the Yaba environs and also explained the story of  “A tale of two cities”.

The staff said Atan is one of the most popular public cemeteries in Lagos and that it is the final resting place of a lot of Nigerians and even foreigners.

According the him, it features a portion reserved for the British Government and maintained by the Common Wealth office for the burial of Nigerian soldiers who died in the service of the British Crown.

Broken into sections, there’s a section for the poor while the other is reserved for the private and rich people.

“There is a spot that fits whatever budget you have.

“While the public section is rundown, overgrown with weeds because of poor management, the private section, which is run by Ebony Casket Ventures, is well-maintained and manned with all-day security,” he added

Laolu Onabolu, a staff of Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said the commission was established by Royal Charter in 1917 and is responsible for the commemoration in perpetuity of the 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died during the two world wars, by marking and maintaining their graves, building and maintaining memorials for those with no known graves and also keeping records and registers of the war dead.

He explained that a founding principle of the Commission’s work is equality of treatment in commemoration, regardless of military or civil rank, race or creed.

The Commission, according to him, now has a commitment in 153 countries, caring for 940,000 Commonwealth burials from the two world wars in 2,500 constructed war cemeteries and 21,000 other burial grounds. And the 760,000 dead who have no known grave are commemorated on some 200 memorials.

“Most of the war cemeteries and memorials are maintained by the Commission’s own staff, although in a number of countries, mainly within the Commonwealth, special arrangements exist whereby the governments of those countries carry out maintenance on our behalf.

“The care of war graves in civil cemeteries and churchyards is mostly entrusted to local authorities and contractors who maintain them by agreement with the Commission.

“In many countries, we rely upon practical assistance and advice from Commonwealth diplomatic missions to carry out our work,” he added.

Explaining further, he said as an agency service, on behalf of the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, the Commission also maintains a large number of non-world war graves in a number of countries.

This is also carried out on behalf of other countries where appropriate.

Other work undertaken on an agency basis and charged at cost include the maintenance of various regimental memorials and old consular cemeteries.

“There are eight Commission memorials in Nigeria, the two principal ones forming at one time part of the Nigerian Cenotaph.

“One, called the ‘Lagos Memorial’ in the Commission’s records, consists of two bronze figures, an Hausa soldier and an Ibo carrier, commemorating over 900 casualties of the 1914-18 War, the names of the dead being recorded in the memorial register and not on the memorial itself.

“The other, the ‘Nigeria Memorial’, consists of ten bronze panels, on which nearly 1,200 dead of the 1939-45 War are commemorated by name.

“These two memorials, formerly in the Idumota area of Lagos, together with a memorial to those who died in the Nigerian Civil War, were moved to Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos, in 1977.

“The Memorials are now in Abuja at the Military Cemetery on the Airport Road,” he said.

In this area that is maintained by the Commonwealth Commission, graves are neatly arranged with some having bouquets decorating it.

Ironically, the state of the site under the supervision of the Yaba Local Government is a sorry sight.

Though the dead, they say, does not talk, but if the inhabitants of Iwaya Road or the adjourning Avay Road are to speak out, one thing they would complain of is the poor condition of the environment.

Alhaji Taiwo, who is one of the Local Government staff at the cemetery, said if the dead could speak out, they would definitely complain of the filth and old graves that have been overtaken by weeds.

He said the bushy area is only cleared anytime someone is to be buried. And that the cost of clearing is borne by the family of the deceased person.

“The bereaved family is asked to pay about N50,000 into the purse of the local government.

“We have grave diggers who also collect between N5,000 and N10,000 to dig a grave while it also attracts an additional cost if the family wants to erect a tomb for the deceased,” he said.

Aisha A. Shuaibu, a relative of a deceased who spoke to our correspondent, said “I buried my mum two weeks ago here at Atan Cemetery and it wasn’t an easy task.

“When I approached an official of the cemetery, I was told I had three options.

“Option one was the private section ‘A’ site which cost over a million naira, option two was also a private section but not as classy as the first option.

“Its cost was almost N550,000 (land space N350,00 and marble covering, a headstone and gate N200,000).

“The third option cost N20,000, which was the general area, and the irony was that after two or three years that particular space is resold after body parts of the deceased must have been exhumed and burnt.

“My family and I took option B. This is not to say Option B doesn’t have its own challenges; it was unkept and some gravesides had been affected by erosion and so partially open.

“Seeing all these, my family and I decided to employ someone to always keep our mum’s graveside clean for a token.

“Arrangements like these, we understand, are made by relatives of deceased who want to keep the memories of their loved ones alive in a clean and conducive environment.”

She went on to say that the cemetery is a big one but there were no access roads and urged the relevant authorities to create access roads and engage workers to maintain the place.

“Afterall huge sums of monies are collected here daily. Maintenance shouldn’t be an issue.

“We can afford to engage someone to clean, what about those who can’t? May the dead continue to rest in peace,” she concluded.

One of the grave diggers sat on a nearby tomb eating while another was seen relaxing on another grave.

“Here, we see ourselves as one. We even eat fruits that fall from the mango trees.

“They are usually big and tasty,” Alhaji said jokingly.

Aside the freshly dug graves, most of the tombs are in different states of disrepair.

Some of them have broken slabs and fallen tombstones, while others are not clearly marked out.

Another staff of the cemetery simply identified as Baba Ijesha said the burial space are changed from year to year to avoid grave diggers digging up old human bones.

Pointing at one of the well tendered graves, he said some family members do not bother to take special care to mark the tomb of their departed relatives, which according to him, leads to the lose of the actual resting place of the deceased.

A resident of the area informed our correspondent that sometimes, native doctors visit the cemetery to buy human bones or skulls from the grave diggers.

The source said there are several instances where grave diggers exhume bones of earlier buried corpses while digging new graves.

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