TThe last time Sydney ran out of public cemeteries, it created a health emergency. Henry Graham, the city’s health officer in 1866, described seeing bodies “so close to the surface that one could touch them with a cane or an umbrella.”
Today’s Sydney would be unrecognizable to Graham, but her space crisis might sound familiar. All crown cemeteries in the city could close new burials within 10 years, according to the 11th Hour report, a statutory review of the New South Wales Crematories and Cemeteries Act, released in February.
Crown cemeteries appropriate for some communities, such as the Maori and Russian Orthodox, could be sold out in three years, according to the report.
“The report is quite damning, quite disturbing,” says Dr. Hannah Gould, president of the Australian Society for Death Studies. “If this is not going to get people to take action, I’m not sure what to write about.”
The fact that Sydney is running out of burial space is not in dispute, but the proposed solutions are. The city will urgently need to acquire a new space to bury the dead, renovate existing cemeteries, explore other forms of burial, or ideally do all three at once.
If action is not taken, the consequences will not be as dire as in the 19th century, but the moral and financial implications will be dire.
The shortage of space “makes burials unaffordable … and prevents families and communities from burying their loved ones in accordance with their religious customs,” the report says.
The requirement to keep cemeteries in perpetuity after they close for new burials also “poses a significant financial risk to the state … of more than $ 300 million.”
Gould says the shortage of burial space is a problem across Australia, but the Sydney situation is exceptionally dire.
In most other states, cemeteries are public, but in New South Wales they are operated by a mosaic of public, private, church and charitable bodies. To make a change, says Gould, “you need the participation of all these different parties that often compete directly with each other.”
The 11th Hour report bluntly states that the current model is “not fit for purpose” and recommends numerous changes, including the consolidation of the five trusts that run cemeteries on crown lands: the Board of Catholic Cemeteries and the four vendors. run by the government divided regionally. (Other providers use private land or, in some cases, lease from the crown.)
The executive director of the Board of Catholic Cemeteries, 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 focused enough on this issue. “
He rejects the idea of consolidation, saying that “the state should fix its own backyard.”
The government has yet to respond to the report, but last month asked Catholic cemeteries to stop work on the construction of the Macarthur Memorial Park in Varroville, planned as Sydney’s first new crown cemetery for more than 80 years, while considering the report’s findings.
O’Meara says she found the decision “really puzzling.”
The Planning, Industry and Environment Department declined to comment, other than saying the government was preparing its response to the report, which would be released “in the very near future.”
The main reason why building new cemeteries has become so difficult: even in Varrovile – is the force of opposition from local communities.
For new and existing cemeteries, the 11th Hour report found that there was “a legitimate question as to whether cemeteries in Sydney are losing their social license to operate.”
For the new sites, there are concerns about property prices, what the graveyard is replacing, and also “moral objections … stemming from long-standing taboos,” says Gould.
That conflict has been raging for four years in the semi-rural village of Wallacia, along the Nepean River in western Sydney. There are two proposals for new cemeteries in the area, one from Catholic Cemeteries and one from a private company, for a total of 147,000 buried cemeteries, along with crematorium walls and mausoleums, for a total of 802,000 burials.
On Greendale Road, a gently rolling road from Bringelly to Wallacia, three other private cemeteries and crematoriums have already obtained approval, although their construction status remains uncertain.
All have drawn opposition, but the one presented by Catholic Cemeteries is particularly controversial. Under the proposal, the land that has been used as a golf course since the 1930s would be converted into 27,000 burial sites. The course would be reduced to nine holes until 2050, and then it would also be converted for use in cemeteries.
Wallacia Progress Association president Jane McLuckie says the proposal “takes away the only recreation and green space open to Wallacia … We are losing and there is no guarantee that we will win anything.”
Catholic cemeteries say the comforts of space will not be reduced. O’Meara describes the construction of “beautiful botanical cemeteries”, with additional provisions for the public, “designed to mimic the image of what the golf course is today.”
But McLuckie says that “this development of the cemetery is not in the public interest.” She she paints a picture of a group of children playing soccer 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 logging and environmental damage, inadequate transportation provision, and the fact that the area surrounding the proposed cemetery is prone to flooding. “Wallacia is part of the Mulgoa Valley and it needs protection.
“We are not against cemeteries, we are not nimbys, we just think ‘how many corpses does the village need?’ … It would not be the town it is now. “If the construction of all the proposals were to go ahead, the community fears,” it could be like a necropolis. “
Local State Representative Tanya Davies has supported community concerns and told parliament in 2019 that the proposals would “completely destroy the character and community of the town of Wallacia, which is a small, tight-knit municipality.”
The Penrith city council has also fought against successive iterations of the proposed Catholic cemeteries. In 2017, after the land was acquired, the council attempted to rezone the area to remove the cemeteries as a permitted use.
On March 24, 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 latest shortage. “Over the century we have become more secular,” says O’Meara, noting that about two-thirds of the population now opt for cremation.
This means that Rookwood “will never close, because 70% of what they do is cremation,” and burying cremated remains requires no more space than a shoe box.
But not everyone’s faith allows cremation. People of Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim faiths now account for the majority of burials. Riverstone Muslim Cemetery Board Chairman Kazi Khalequzzaman Ali, wrote in connection with Wallacia’s proposals that her community was “increasingly concerned that affordable burial plots are increasingly difficult to find … Planning for the future, more burial space is desperately needed.”
Similar concerns were raised in a joint presentation of the Lebanese Muslim Association and the Board of Jewish Deputies.
Gould says that the provision of the cemetery has been based on the Anglo-Australian assumption of what a cemetery is, but those who now choose burial may have different needs, and “everyone has the right to be buried according to their faith.”
“Issues of race and belonging in Australia” are often reproduced in death, he says.
“In many ways, our cemeteries are spaces for non-Anglo-Australian communities, which have generally not been addressed by the cemetery government.”
Gould, O’Meara, and the 11th Hour report conclude that, in an ideal world, cemeteries would be located close to the communities they serve, approximately half an hour away. They would also offer affordable and appropriate services for all religions, and maintain a social license to operate.
Without seismic changes, these needs are unlikely to be met.
McLuckie says steps should be taken for cemeteries when major housing developments are proposed. “Developers should not choose, the government should provide strategically.” That way, those who move next door will know who their neighbors are from the start.
Since 1940, when the last crown cemetery was built, cemeteries have not been part of the planning landscape, even as the annual death toll in Sydney increased by more than 100% and land prices rose to record highs.
O’Meara says the only place to build new cemeteries now is on the agrarian periphery of the city, well beyond the half-hour travel limit. “As far as I’m concerned, there is no shortage of cemeteries, you just have to go a little further.”
He says Catholic cemeteries have already acquired 160 hectares at the Wallacia and Varroville sites, and there are another 350 hectares available adjacent to the sites.
“So if the government says there is a shortage of burial space, why don’t we buy the land next door?”
That’s exactly what Wallacia residents 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 have a situation where you’re 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 serve the best interests of the public,” says Gould.
“When someone we love dies, the availability of space in the cemetery becomes really important. But if you don’t have that connection, people don’t think about the rights of the dead. They are an anonymous and unknown monolith. And we don’t like the idea of giving them space ”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism