“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.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.