“Do you know where and how you want to be buried?” Sydney is facing a severe lack of graves

Waverley Cemetery, Sydney. Image: Getty.

Do you know where and how you want to be buried?

Will you choose an elaborate Victorian-style headstone, or do you prefer a “green” burial, with only a GPS tracking signal indicating your location? Or you may elect to purchase a Bios Urn, a 100 per cent biodegradable capsule you plant in the ground with cremated ashes and a seed of your choice which will one day grow into a tree.

Issues of mortality and access to burial space are not typically dinner party conversations or at the top of government agendas. And, until recently, its priority as a future challenge in planning has been virtually non-existent.

Sydney’s 2014 strategic plan, A Plan for Growing Sydney, recognises the need for studies of cemetery capacity and demand to identify future land requirements. Such studies are likely to reveal spatial variances across larger cities due to differences in age and religious and cultural communities.

The last major changes to the cemetery landscape in Australian cities occurred in the late 1800s. At this time, the crowded and unsanitary conditions of churchyard burial grounds required the dedication of considerable burial land on what was once the urban fringe.

Many of these cemeteries continue to serve society’s burial needs. For the past century, there has been no pressing need to plan cities for the dead. It therefore comes as no surprise that consideration of a cemetery as essential public infrastructure has fallen through the cracks.

We have reached a point where this must change. The lifespans of existing cemeteries in major Australian cities are severely limited. In Sydney, according to the NSW Department of Planning and Environment, the metropolitan region’s 310,000 to 330,000 available plots will likely be exhausted by 2050.

Annual numbers of deaths are predicted to double between 2011 and 2051. Despite a shift towards cremations over the last century (Sydney’s cremation rate is 66 per cent), our cities’ diverse religious and cultural communities will always require space for burial.

This issue raises two important considerations. Where will we bury? And how will we bury?

Where will we bury?

At some 280 hectares, Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery is the largest cemetery in the southern hemisphere. The allocation of such sizeable land only 15km from the CBD is unimaginable today. Equally as inconceivable is the location of Waverley Cemetery, which clings to the ocean cliffs of Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

Waverley Cemetery occupies a coastal site in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, the sort of location that simply isn’t available for a new cemetery today. Image: author provided.

Significant barriers to cemetery development in urban areas include high land values, limited available land, restrictive zoning and a more pressing need to house the living. The landlocked nature of many existing cemeteries suggests no choice except for the dedication of additional land on the urban fringe.

Sydney has changed considerably since Rookwood Cemetery was established in 1868. While planners are continually rethinking how we design for housing, transport and employment to meet changing needs, we are yet to contemplate a new life for the cemetery landscape.


How will we bury?

The need to plan for the shortage of burial space presents a timely opportunity to reconsider how we bury. Recent legislative changes in New South Wales introduced provisions for the re-use of an older grave once the tenure period expires. Renewable tenure creates the opportunity to provide ongoing cemetery capacity.

Renewable tenure is uncommon in Australia. The majority of burial plots are still sold in perpetuity, meaning a grave remains untouched forever.

Have you ever considered that your grave could later become someone else’s? Would you buy a grave for you parents for a limited number of years, or would you choose a grave that you could visit for the rest of your life and your children’s lives?

These are difficult questions to ponder. Additionally, disturbing a personal and sacred space for the dead typically does not sit well with the public. A grave is often thought of as a “final resting place”.

An important question is whether the bereaved seek comfort in memorialising the deceased in perpetuity, or is a physical space for mourning only required for an initial period of time. Considering that grave visitations often cease after 40 to 50 years, is it reasonable to assume that the significance of a grave varies over time?

When the opinions of younger adults (aged 20-30) on grave re-use were surveyed by one of the authors, 72 per cent of respondents indicated that they were unaware of this practice. However, respondents recognised links to several urban issues, including sustainable land consumption and growth pressures in cities.

A natural burial park has been established in the grounds of the Catholic Kemps Creek Cemetery in Sydney’s west. Image: Sydney Natural Burial Park/Catholic Cemeteries and Crematoria.

Respondents also expressed interest in other burial trends, such as natural burial parks, where physical memorials are limited and the natural environment remains largely unaltered. Despite a discussion on burial practices, 68 per cent said they wanted to be cremated. If cremation rates do rise in the future, this could essentially mean less urban land is needed for burials.

A conversation about burial preferences and new burial trends will improve understanding and provide direction on the future demand for burial land and the future form of the cemetery landscape.The Conversation

Kate Ryan is a researcher and Christine Steinmetz a senior lecturer in built environment at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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