Space and ethnic practices put heavy demands on cemeteries

AAP Source: Steven Markham

Across Australia, many existing cemeteries are nearing full capacity, and new gravesites are being planned to cope with the demand of a growing and ageing population.   

Across Australia, many existing cemeteries are nearing full capacity, and new gravesites are being planned to cope with the demand of a growing and ageing population.

But also growing is Australia's diversity, and burial practices are not the same in every culture.

Abbie O'Brien looks at how cemeteries are catering to growing death rates while also responding to the needs of Australia's multicultural communities.

Australia is becoming more diverse, and so are its cemeteries.

Santino Belmuda was among the hundred or so Australian-Italians at a recent opening of a new mausoleum in Melbourne.

He says most of the Italian community favours mausoleums over graves.

"They've done a wonderful job. Quite a number of people are extremely happy.The mausoleums in Italy have been in existence for a number of years. I'm 68 years of age, and I remember, as a little boy, going to the cemetery, and there were more mausoleums than there were graves under the ground."

Leigh Funston is from Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, the not-for-profit organisation that developed the new mausoleum at the Springvale Botanical Cemetery.

He says the mausoleum was built to cater for the growing demand within Melbourne's large Italian community.

"It's part of our approach to ensure we engage with the various communities that we serve. And the Italian community, they've got special burial needs. Southern Italians like to be buried in a building that ensures their body does not touch soil."

He says cemetery organisations should seek to understand and represent cultural traditions.

"A cemetery organisation such as ours needs to be in touch with what those needs are so that people feel that, when someone has passed, the particular requirements of that part of the community are reflected in how someone actually is buried, or cremated."

Mr Belmuda says people should be able to remember their loved ones in a pleasant and sacred place.

"I think it's a wonderful thing, and people can feel comfortable to go and spend an afternoon with the loved ones that they've lost. And I think that's what's more important than anything else."

Robert Pitt is chief executive officer at the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority.

He says Australia's growing migrant population is contributing to a surge in demand for special burial needs at cemeteries.

"With new communities that are coming and emerging, such as, around Adelaide, we've got the Hindu, the Buddhist in particular ... they bring a very high level of their cultural and religious beliefs into their funeral services."

He says a major challenge in cemetery planning is the combination of limited space and Australia's ageing population.

"Predictions are that the death rate will double over the next 25 to 30 years in Australia, throughout Australia. So it's an emerging issue, or very much a current issue, for cemetery planning."

But Mr Pitt says South Australia is leading the way in the innovation of cemeteries.

Unlike most other states, South Australia has adopted a strategy to ease the growing demand for gravesites.

A provision of limited tenure on graves has been implemented to slow the speed at which cemeteries reach capacity.

That allows space to be reused.

"The cemetery trust could make attempts to contact the licence holder and offer to extend the grave lease. And about one in five people, in our experience, do that. The issue is then that the graves that aren't used are then photographed, recorded, assessed for any heritage value, and then the headstone can be removed and skeletal remains recovered and lowered and placed in the same grave, down lower at three metres deep, and left there forever. But that frees the graves up for future use."

But Mr Pitt says the issue is sensitive because certain faiths oppose that practice.

He says, while space is an ongoing issue, it is important cultural needs are acknowledged.

"I know that the Jewish community is very passionate about perpetual leases, or grave leases. They don't agree with the limited tenure. So we're having some dialogue with them about that."

But while some faiths oppose limited tenure, others favour practices that alleviate the issue of space.

Michelle Blyth is general manager for customer and industry intelligence for the Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust in Melbourne.

She says some religions choose not to bury the deceased.

"There's the Hindu faith. They prefer to cremate. We've predicted death rates and population growth out to 2050, and I think that's significant when planning for growth of cemeteries and addressing the future community needs."

Mr Pitt agrees.

"We've done Australian Bureau of Statistics projections, and we looked at the census, and, even around the cemetery and in the field now, the fastest-growing group around in the suburbs near us is the Hindu. And we're about to go and meet with the Hindu community and speak to them."

He says, as culturally diverse communities grow, cemetery organisations must engage in open and direct dialogue with the communities to ensure their needs are met.

"The realisation for us has been, over the last five years, that having community-consultation and community-engagement strategies and resources are really important for us."





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