The coming decades represent an era of uncertainty for Australia’s cemeteries. They also present an opportunity to reflect on what our public cemeteries could and should be.
Our cemeteries are running out of space, with more Australians dying than ever before. As a result of a growing and ageing population, the country’s annual death count has more than doubled since 1960. It will double again by around 2070.
Unlike other real estate, cemetery space is largely a non-renewable resource. Many European countries lease grave sites for a limited period, but most Australian states and territories stipulate that each burial must be preserved in perpetuity. New South Wales has introduced a system of opt-in 25-year leases.
Some intercity cemeteries have been closed to new burials for decades. Demands on cemeteries as green spaces for leisure and recreation, as well as commemorating the dead, are also growing.
This is what makes Victoria’s Harkness cemetery development, a 128-hectare site on the edge of Melbourne’s West Growth Corridor, so significant. It’s Victoria’s largest new cemetery development in 100 years.
Harkness will shape how Australians live and die for many generations to come. And it is an opportunity to imagine a new future for death in Australia.
We are investigating these issues as members of The Future Cemetery project team, in partnership with colleagues at the University of Melbourne, Oxford University and the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust. Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, we conducted two studies:
a co-design workshop with representatives of the Australian death care industry, which came up with five models for future cemeteries
a national survey of attitudes to cemeteries, which found many Australians are open to change.
How cemeteries are changing
Changes in demography, religious affiliation and technology, among other factors, shape public attitudes to how the dead should be treated.
The demographic trend is reasonably clear. Australia’s population is projected to grow strongly in coming decades (despite the effects of the coronavirus). This growth is driven mainly by high net overseas migration.
Australia’s religious diversity will likely increase, too. Christianity is projected to become a minority religion by 2050 for the first time since European colonisation, and the population of religiously unaffiliated is growing. The preference for burial or cremation within Australia’s diverse communities has a particular marked impact on future cemetery design.
Technology could also revolutionise cemetery design. New methods for treating human remains, such as recomposition (“human composting”), alkaline hydrolysis (“water cremation”) and natural burial, could alter the volume and kinds of remains that end up in cemeteries. Other technologies could change how we see the cemetery, from augmented-reality historical tours to remote grave visits through 3D drone photography.
Five visions of the future cemetery
The co-design workshop’s five models are:
the traditional cemetery as it currently exists
the nature park cemetery, which integrates burial grounds with native bushland to provide a space that is resource-neutral and open to the public for walking and picnics
the socially activated cemetery, which makes space available for a range of public uses, from educational activities such as birdwatching and botany to leisure activities such as playgrounds and cafés
the urban high-rise cemetery, which takes take the form of a centrally located urban building rather than a rolling open lawn, drawing inspiration from multi-storey columbaria in North-East Asia, to enable the deceased to be laid to rest close to their loved ones
the digital cemetery, which is the idea of a “technology layer” that will increasingly co-exist with, and perhaps one day even replace, the physical cemetery, where loved ones can share photographs, videos and stories about the deceased. In an age of pandemic lockdowns, this digital layer could even allow for people to visit graves remotely for memorial services.
Each of these models is a hypothetical – no cemetery in the near future is likely to follow a single model to the exclusion of all others. However, they point towards the differing options cemetery designers have to think about when planning for the next 100 years.
How do Australians see cemeteries?
Australians appear to be relatively open to considering new concepts for the cemetery.
In our national survey, two-thirds of respondents disagreed with the idea that “the cemetery should only be for the interment and memorialisation of the dead”. About a third of respondents supported the use of cemeteries as nature reserves to conserve plants and animals. Similar numbers agreed that a cemetery would be a good place to learn about historical and philosophical issues.
Leisure activities at the cemetery, such as exercise classes, picnics and concerts, attracted much less public support. And conspicuous technologies such as drones and virtual reality systems proved a bridge too far for most.
Most notable was a lack of strong feelings – positive or negative – about many of the proposals for the future cemetery. This suggests to us that, given taboos around death, Australians rarely have the chance to consider the cemetery and its potential uses. We are perhaps open to considering new technologies and ideas for the cemetery, as long as they are implemented respectfully and do not disrupt the fundamental need to mourn the dead.
The Australian society has changed significantly since cemeteries in Victoria were planned and designed 150 years ago. But there haven’t been any major redevelopment or review of the community’s changing requirements for what happens to our bodies when we die.
The Australian population is ageing, with around 15% of Australians aged 65 and over in 2017. About a third of older people in Australia were born overseas, with most coming from a non-English speaking background.
This has implications for our rituals for death and memorialisation, as well as for existing and future cemeteries.
In a new collaborative research project taken from survey responses and in-depth interviews with members of different communities, we found cemeteries have ongoing significance to Australians, although its meaning and function are changing.
More than half of the 380 survey respondents said they still visit a cemetery once a year or more, and 23% visit once a month or more. But the interview data reveal a more complex and dynamic picture.
We found people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities tend to visit the cemetery more than their Anglo counterparts, and prefered to be memorialised in cemeteries to preserve a sense of belonging.
Anglo-Australians, on the other hand, generally prefer to be cremated and often choose to scatter ashes in places other than a cemetery. In one participant’s case, that meant scattering remains in a French vinyard, an island volcano and their local beach.
Calling Australia home
The cemetery remains an important site of cultural ritualisation and expression to most CALD interviewees.
Interviewees from the CALD communities – especially those from an Asian cultural background – had positive experiences with cemeteries in Australia. When comparing Australian cemeteries with those in Malaysia, Jenny (60s, Malaysian Chinese) said:
In Malaysia, the cemeteries are not like this […] they are all overgrown […] and we were taught that graves are places where the gangsters will hide out, the thieves will hide out, people will come and rob you, so we don’t go.
The perceptions that Australian cemeteries are more open, greener, better managed, more accessible, and not as scary as those in their original countries made many Asian migrants felt more willing to visit a cemetery here.
Besides the aesthetic contrast, for many CALD interviewees, the cemetery offers a space that embraces their culture and gives them a sense of belonging in Australia.
Tony (30s, Tongan) would love to have a traditional Tongan way of burial in Australia, which involves bone picking (removing the bones from the grave), and grave re-using for future generations. These traditions strengthen their inter-generational connections.
Australian regulations mean these ritual practices are not possible here. But Tony was prepared to make a compromise.
Instead of following the ritual, he insisted on being buried in Australia because his children and family live in Australia. The inter-generational connections can prevail here. They call Australia home.
Participants from the CALD communities generally shared Tony’s idea. They believed having a physical place in Australia (either a grave or a plot for the ashes) gave them a sense of belonging and settlement for themselves and their families.
A library of local history, not a ‘resting place’
On the other hand, people from an Anglo-cultural background no longer see cemeteries as just a space for memorialisation and mourning. From our interviews, many see it as a “library” or a “depository” of the local history and family genealogy.
Cemetery visits, in this sense, contrast between fulfilling one’s cultural duty of memorialisation, and obtaining historical knowledge for self-learning, reflection, and development.
Alfred’s (50s, Anglo-Australian) cemetery visits had been driven by his interest in his family history. Family history can give someone “an explanation” about the kind of person they are, and:
how the attitudes were passed on to the next generation so you can learn a tremendous amount, multi-generation through a family history search.
Yet, while many Anglo interview participants appreciated the historical and cultural values of the cemetery, they became less enthusiastic when considering the cemetery as their “resting places”.
We believe this corresponds with the nationwide trend since 2012 of more Australians preferring cremation to traditional full-body burial.
We found 56% of our survey respondents preferred cremation, 32% indicated preference for a ground burial and 12% were undecided.
In any case, our research indicated many people prefer to be memorialised at a place or site that’s meaningful. This might include their favourite beach or the park where they spent time with their children, rather than in a cemetery, which is outside their social, family spaces.
Tina (50s, Anglo-Australian) embarked on a global journey to fulfil her late husband’s wishes as he wanted his cremation remains (called cremains) scattered in three locations he loved: a vinyard in Burgundy, France, a volcano in Reunion Island, and the family’s local beach in Williamstown, Melbourne. Tina did all three.
Planning your body disposal
More people have started pre-planning what happens to their body when they die. The quantitative data shows 64% of people have already discussed their end of life-related wishes with close friends or family, and 11% have pre-paid for a funeral service.
In an earlier study, we found Chinese Australians, for example, tended to pre-purchase their funeral services and grave sites before they died.
As previously mentioned, this might enhance their sense of cultural belonging in Australia.
On the other hand, people from an Anglo cultural background would “talk about it”, but few actually “lock things in”.
Interviews from the present study revealed people with an Anglo cultural background had a strong desire of “flexibility”. Many didn’t wish to decide at the time of their interview, as they were still exploring possibilities and opportunities outside the conventional modes of body disposal and memorialisation.
In other words, the idea of being memorialised outside the cemetery was an emerging rather than established idea.
Understanding the contemporary and future funeral needs of the culturally diverse Australian population is important to policy makers, as well as the cemetery and funeral industries.
With increasingly limited access to usable land suitable for burial practices – particularly in metropolitan areas – planning must consider the funeral rites of the ageing population and incoming migrant groups. They are likely to make end of life choices in the coming decades.
Wilfred Wang, Lecturer, Communications & Media Studies, Monash University; Gil-Soo Han, Associate Professor, Communications & Media Studies, Monash University, and Helen Forbes-Mewett, Senior lecturer, Monash University