Issues Magazine

The Future of Cemeteries in Australia: A Matter of Life and Death

By By Jo Davenport

Senior Marketing Executive, Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association

More land for cemeteries and more sustainable burial practices will help address Australia’s burial space shortage.

The provision of cemetery grounds and burial space is an important part of the cultural and social expectations within Australian communities. A strategic, coordinated approach to management of the interment industry in Australia is essential to address the critical shortage of burial space and to ensure that a full range of interment options are accessible and affordable to all cultural and religious communities across the country.

With ever-increasing pressure on the use of available land within Australian cities and metropolitan areas, the ability of cemeteries to meet these expectations is becoming more difficult. New land for cemeteries within populated major metropolitan areas is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain because of the demand for other infrastructure in these areas.

As the population of Australia continues to grow, priority has been placed on utilising available land for purposes such as housing, infrastructure, open space for recreation and essential public facilities such as school and hospitals. In addition, rising land values have increased the cost of acquiring large sites for cemeteries. As a result, land available for new burial sites is extremely limited, particularly in metropolitan areas.

Projections indicate that available burial sites across the greater metropolitan Sydney area will reach capacity within 30–40 years, and much sooner in some of our older cemeteries. Land acquisition for cemeteries and crematoria, especially in development corridors, will be an essential part of avoiding this predicament. This should be accompanied by more sustainable burial practices that can extend the life of our existing cemeteries.

The number of deaths in Australia has been stable for several years, but this is expected to increase steadily over the next couple of decades. This relates directly to the ageing of the population, particularly of the large population group born since World War II. The Australian Bureau of Statistics projects the annual number of deaths will more than double, from around 142,000 in 2012 to more than 300,000 by 2050. This will result in a higher level of demand for cemetery space than previous historic levels.

The research shows that people prefer to bury family and friends within a reasonable distance from their homes to enable regular visits. This is a critical insight, as building a cemetery beyond where people are willing to travel could result in a valuable community asset that is under-utilised. To ensure that future generations have the option of a traditional burial in a cemetery close to their communities, land use planning and land acquisition for cemeteries and crematoria is essential. However, given the scarcity of new land and increasing competition over land use priorities, particularly in major metropolitan centres, the better use of existing cemetery space is also crucial.

Peter O’Meara, CEO of Catholic Cemeteries Metropolitan Trust, which manages one of the largest cemeteries in Australia at Rookwood, is concerned about the lack of planning by state and local government authorities when it comes to future cemetery development. “In metropolitan Sydney we have witnessed huge population growth in the western suburbs and commissioned a major cemetery demand assessment for the area that comprises Blacktown, Camden, Campbelltown, Liverpool and Penrith,” he said.

“The catchment area is expected to grow by around 737,200 people from 2013–2038. The number of deaths is also expected to be higher than historic levels, so that all burial land in this precinct will be exhausted within 35 years.

I don’t believe local government authorities are giving this issue sufficient attention in helping address the critical shortage of cemetery burial space. We need a far better coordinated approach to planning for future developments in metropolitan areas generally, and local authorities are critical to this exercise.”

The introduction of renewable tenure of grave sites, where the rights to a grave would be leased for a set period of time, is sometimes viewed by certain groups as controversial. David Harley, who was contracted by the NSW government to develop reform for cemeteries and crematoria, said: “It is a very sensitive issue, but with diminishing land supply it appears that these new concepts of burial are something that we will look at very carefully”. Any discussion of renewable tenure would exclude war graves and heritage items. It would not apply retrospectively to existing burial rights.

Renewable interment rights will allow for more sustainable use of Australia’s diminishing burial space. Renewable interment involves the purchase of a right to inter human remains, and for those remains to be left undisturbed for an initial period of 25 years, with the option of renewing the right for additional periods of up to 99 years. If the interment right is not renewed, the interment site may then be reused after certain requirements have been met. Renewable interment rights will not be allowed in cemetery portions where perpetual interment is required on religious or cultural grounds.

In Western Australia, the maximum tenure on any given plot is 50 years. The introduction of this process involved extensive community consultation and newspaper advertisements to gain the permission of the families of the deceased. Any remains from a previous burial are usually left in place when the grave is reused. Cremated remains must be returned to the holder of the right or scattered within the cemetery.

In South Australia, no grave can be leased for more than 100 years and in some cemeteries tenure is limited to 25 or 50 years. When the lease runs out, if family or descendants don’t re-lease the site, cemeteries can do what is called ‘a lift and deepen’. The grave is dug again, and the remains are removed and placed in an ossuary box deeper in the grave. The original grave can then be resold to a new family. At Centennial Park Cemetery in South Australia, the cemetery would have exhausted its burial sites within an estimated period of only 15–20 years without reuse of graves.

Many states have considered or adopted “leasing a grave” options to extend the life cycle of cemeteries. The Victorian Government is currently conducting a review of cemeteries, and with only eight metropolitan councils expected to have remaining grave plots by the end of 2035, many councils have already run out of burial space.

Burial practices that extend the life of cemeteries are used extensively in a number of countries overseas, in cemeteries such as Pere Lachaise in France and in cemeteries across Italy, which has a higher percentage of Catholics, whose cultural preference is for burial. In Germany, graves are reused after only 30 years and the existing remains are usually exhumed and cremated. The reuse of graves is common practice in European countries, where building new cemeteries is simply not an option. The German government is currently investigating whether the tenure period should be lowered from 30 years to 20 years.

When a renewable interment right expires and is not renewed, the cemetery operator may reuse the related interment site by offering a new right. This is usually done after a grace period of 2 years has expired, reasonable efforts have been made to contact persons listed in the register, and the intention to reuse the site has been published. A site cannot be reused until all bodily remains interred at the site have been interred for a minimum period, ranging from 10 years in Europe to 25 years in Australia.

In addition to adding to the amount of available burial spaces, renewable tenure will place downward pressure on interment costs and give people the option of a traditional burial, which is currently beyond the means of certain demographic groups. It will take time for the expectations and preferences of Australians to change towards renewable burials, as permanent burials have been the only option in the past.

Some cemetery operators believe that renewable tenure will help address the shortage of burial space in NSW and Victoria, but are concerned that cemeteries may already be exhausted before renewable tenure has any substantial impact.

Anecdotal evidence from Europe, where renewable burials are more established, indicates that average burial tenure is around 50 years, equating to around two generations. The current situation in the Sydney metropolitan area will see supply through for approximately another two generational cycles. Given the long lead time required to source and gain approvals for suitable cemetery sites, this could be considered a critical shortage given the historic operation period of other major cemeteries in capital cities (over 150 years). It is important to consider that cemeteries can have relevance to multiple generations from a single family group and therefore need capacity to accommodate this longitudinal demand over multiple generations.

In addition to cemetery renewal and renewable interment rights, the NSW Government is promoting other sustainable options, such as natural or green burial and family graves. At Sydney Natural Burial Park, Kemps Creek, the right of burial is granted for 30 years, and can be renewed on expiry. Natural burials offer the community a simple and sustainable resting place with minimal disturbance to the bushland environment.

An alternative to traditional burial is cremation. Economic forecaster IBISWorld reports that the percentage of cremations in Australia will increase from 55% to an expected 70% by 2016. Chris Harrington, Chief Executive Officer for the Australian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association, confirms that cremation numbers are on the increase in Australia and “cremation is a cheaper alternative and it is also a function of there being limited space for burials. The regulations differ from state to state on whether cemeteries and crematoria are able to offer different lengths of tenure for bodies in graves, and this is an area that is likely to undergo further shifts to try and solve the land shortage.”

Any major cemetery development will need to take this into consideration. They will have to provide chapels, crematoria and function facilities that communities require to conduct their funeral services, as well as provide interment space for cremated remains. Many cemeteries are moving towards a less formal setting, and provide passive recreational facilities that are used by the general public, such as walking tracks, cafes and gardens.

In considering the future need for burial space in Australia, it must be identified that cemeteries are an inter-generational investment in infrastructure. Rookwood Necropolis (1868) and Woronora Cemetery (1895) in NSW, and Springvale Cemetery (1901) and Fawkner Memorial Park (1905) in Victoria, are examples of cemeteries still in operation, demonstrating the importance of the significant future planning required to develop cemeteries to ensure sufficient capacity for future generations.

Cemeteries have seen big changes in funerary customs in the 20th century. This is because the many new cultural groups that have migrated to Australia have brought their own traditions with them. The monuments at cemeteries form a record of the ethnic and religious diversity of Australian society. The different cultural sections reflect various traditions and customs associated with death. Wandering around a cemetery you get a good understanding of the diversity of cultures in our society. The cemetery can help us to understand where the community has come from, and where we are going.

The expectation from many different community groups is for a final burial place to last forever and to be able to continue their cultural and religious burial practices. It is important to recognise the right of all individuals to a dignified interment and the treatment of their remains with respect. This includes ensuring the beliefs of all community groups are respected and equitable and affordable access to interment services is provided, irrespective of religious or cultural heritage. In the case of the Muslim community in inner western Sydney, if new burial space was not made available in May 2013 at Lot 10, Rookwood Cemetery, they would have run out of burial space in 3 months. In 2011 they also introduced double burials to ease the lack of burial space.

President of the Jewish Board of Deputies, Yair Miller, stated at the opening of new burial space at Rookwood Cemetery in 2013 that the area will provide for the perpetual burial requirements of both the Jewish and the Muslim communities: “The broader cemetery reforms and Lot 10 are an important symbol: Jewish and Muslims working together in life on a common challenge and laying side by side in eternity. I hope we can carry this good will and sense of purpose to our broader communities and our daily lives.”. This last parcel of land at Rookwood should meet the burial needs of these communities in the medium term.

As the population in Australia grows, ages and becomes more densely concentrated in major metropolitan centres, sustainable burial practices and new cemetery developments incorporating cemetery renewal and renewable interment rights will be essential in ensuring equitable access to the full range of interment options. While the different options to address the shortage of burial sites in Australia continues to be debated by various government agencies and interest groups, two fundamental truths emerge: that death is unavoidable and space is disappearing. By looking at equitable solutions for all communities in Australia, we will ensure that everyone in Australia will have the right to choose how their remains are disposed of and the right to have that done and commemorated in a dignified manner.