Shortage of burial space is a problem across Australia, but Sydney’s situation is particularly dire – and solutions are controversial.
The last time Sydney ran out of public burial sites, it created a health emergency. Henry Graham, the city health officer in 1866, described seeing bodies “so near the surface that you could just touch them with a walking stick or umbrella”.
Today’s Sydney would be unrecognisable to Graham, but its crisis of space might be familiar. All crown cemeteries in the city could close to new burials within 10 years, according to the 11th Hour report, a statutory review of NSW’s Cemeteries and Crematoria Act, released in February.
Appropriate crown burial sites for some communities, such as Māori and Russian Orthodox, could run out in three years, the report found.
“The report’s quite damning, quite disturbing,” Dr Hannah Gould, president of the Australian Death Studies Society, says. “If this is not going to shake people into action, I’m not sure what needs to be written.”
The fact that Sydney is running out of burial space is not contested, but the proposed solutions are. The city will urgently need to acquire new space to bury the dead, renew existing cemeteries, explore other forms of interment, or ideally, do all three at once.
If no action is taken, the consequences will not be as gruesome as in the 19th century, but the moral and financial implications will be serious.
A risk for the state
The shortage of space “makes burials unaffordable … and impedes families and communities from burying loved ones in accordance with their religious customs”, the report says.
The requirement to maintain cemeteries in perpetuity after they close to new burials also “poses a significant financial risk to the state … in excess of $300 million”.
Gould says a shortage of burial space is a problem across Australia, but Sydney’s situation is uniquely dire.
In most other states cemeteries are public, but in NSW they are operated by a patchwork of public, private, church and charity bodies. To make a change, Gould says, “you need buy-in from all these different parties who are often in direct competition with each other”.
The 11th Hour report bluntly says the current model is “not fit for purpose” and recommends numerous changes, including the consolidation of the five trusts that run cemeteries on crown land – the Catholic Cemeteries Board and the four regionally divided government-run providers. (Other providers use private land, or in some cases lease from the crown.)
The chief executive of the Catholic Cemeteries Board, Peter O’Meara, says the report “was certainly critical … The report infers a catastrophic disaster looming for Sydney cemeteries … I don’t think that’s the case at all. I just don’t think the government has turned its mind sufficiently to this issue.
He rejects the idea of consolidation, saying “the state should fix their own back yard up”.
The government has yet to respond to the report, but last month requested that Catholic Cemeteries halt work on the construction of Macarthur Memorial Park at Varroville – planned as the first new crown cemetery in Sydney for more than 80 years – while it considered the report’s findings.
O’Meara says he found the decision “really perplexing”.
The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment declined to comment, other than to say the government was preparing its response to the report, which would be forthcoming “in the very near future”.
The main reason construction of new cemeteries has become so difficult – including at Varrovile – is the strength of opposition from local communities.
For new and existing cemeteries, the 11th Hour report found there was “a legitimate question as to whether cemeteries in Sydney are losing their social licence to operate”.
For new sites, there are concerns about property prices, what the cemetery is replacing, and also “moral objections … that arise from quite deep-seated taboos,” Gould says.
That conflict has been playing out for four years in the semi-rural village of Wallacia, beside the Nepean River in western Sydney. There are two proposals for new cemeteries in the area, one by Catholic Cemeteries and one by a private company, totalling 147,000 in-ground burial sites, alongside crematorium walls and mausoleums, totalling 802,000 interments.
On Greendale Road, a gently rolling drive which runs from Bringelly to Wallacia, three more private cemeteries and crematoriums have already won approval, though their construction status remains uncertain.
All have attracted opposition, but the one put forward by Catholic Cemeteries is particularly contentious. Under the proposal, land that has been used as a golf course since the 1930s would be converted into 27,000 burial spaces. The course would be reduced to nine holes until 2050, then also converted for cemetery use.
The president of the Wallacia Progress Association, Jane McLuckie, says the proposal “takes the only recreation and open green space away from Wallacia … We’re losing and there’s no guarantee that we will gain anything.”
Catholic Cemeteries say the amenity of the space will not be reduced. O’Meara describes building “beautiful botanic cemeteries”, with additional provisions for the public, “designed to mimic the image of what the golf course currently is”.
Not in the public interest
But McLuckie says “this cemetery development is not in the public interest”. She paints a picture of a group of children playing football near a grieving family, something she feels would be disrespectful. “We can’t put those things together, but they think we can.”
McLuckie also cites concerns about tree felling and environmental damage, inadequate provision of transport, and the fact that the area surrounding the proposed cemetery is prone to flooding. “Wallacia is a part of Mulgoa Valley, and needs to be protected.
“We’re not against cemeteries, we’re not nimbys, we just think ‘how many dead bodies does the village need?’ … It would not be the village it is now.” Were construction on all of the proposals to go ahead, the community fears, “it could be like a necropolis”.
The local state MP, Tanya Davies, has supported the community’s concerns, telling parliament in 2019 the proposals “would utterly destroy the village character and community of Wallacia, which is a small, very close-knit township”.
Penrith city council has also fought successive iterations of Catholic Cemeteries’ proposal. In 2017, after the land had been acquired, the council attempted to rezone the area to remove cemeteries as a permissible use.
On 24 March, in a letter seen by Guardian Australia, the planning department rejected the rezoning proposal, saying it was “inconsistent with the Greater Sydney Regional Plan … which identifies the need for additional land for burials and cremations”.
Sydney’s burial needs have changed considerably since the Rookwood Necropolis helped solve the city’s last shortage. “Over the century we’ve become more secular,” O’Meara says, noting that about two-thirds of the population now opt for cremation.
More secular: More cremations
This means Rookwood will “never close, because 70% of what they do is cremation”, and interring cremated remains requires space no bigger than a shoebox.
But not everyone’s faith allows for cremation. People of Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim faiths now account for the majority of burials. The president of the Riverstone Muslim Cemetery Board, Kazi Khalequzzaman Ali, wrote in relation to the Wallacia proposals that his community were “increasingly concerned that affordable burial plots are becoming more difficult to find … Planning for the future, more burial space is desperately required.”
Similar concerns were raised in a joint submission from the Lebanese Muslim Association and Jewish Board of Deputies.
Gould says cemetery provision has been based on anglo-Australian assumption of what a cemetery is, but those now choosing burial may have different needs, and “everyone has a right to be buried according to their faith”.
“Questions of race and belonging in Australia” are often reproduced in death, she says.
“In many ways our cemeteries are spaces for non-anglo Australian communities, who haven’t been addressed by the governance of cemeteries usually.”
Gould, O’Meara and the 11th Hour report all conclude that in an ideal world, cemeteries would be located close to the communities that they serve – around half an hour away. They would also offer services that are affordable and appropriate for all faiths, and maintain a social licence to operate.
Without seismic shifts, these needs are unlikely to be fulfilled.
McLuckie says provision should be made for cemeteries when major housing developments are proposed. “The developers shouldn’t choose, the government should strategically provide.” That way, those who move next door would know who their neighbours are from the outset.
Since 1940, when the last crown cemetery was constructed, cemeteries have not been part of the planning picture, even as the number of annual deaths in Sydney swelled by more than 100% and land prices rose to record highs.
O’Meara says that the only place to construct new cemeteries now is on the city’s agrarian fringe, well beyond the half-hour travel limit. “As far as I’m concerned there is no shortage of burial land, you just have to go a little further out.”
He says Catholic Cemeteries have already acquired 160 hectares at the Wallacia and Varroville sites, and there is another 350 hectares available adjacent to the sites.
“So if the government says there’s a shortage of burial space, why don’t we buy the land next door?”
That is exactly what the residents of Wallacia fear.
Gould compares the situation to climate change.
“It’s a slow moving crisis, and it’s hard to communicate exactly why it’s a problem … until all of a sudden we’ve got a situation where it’s here.”
Culturally, socially and physically “people are being pushed further and further away from the dead”.
“At the end of the day, cemeteries are public infrastructure like libraries and swimming pools, they need to meet the public’s best interests,” Gould says.
“When someone we love dies, the availability of cemetery space becomes really important. But if you don’t have that connection, people don’t think about the rights of the dead. They’re an unknown, anonymous monolith. And we don’t like the idea of giving space to them.”
Source: The guardian