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Housing the dead: what happens when a city runs out of space?

The ConversationDo 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% 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%), 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 15 kilometres 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. Kate Ryan, 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.

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