Roadside burials, reuse and the space crisis
Thursday, 11 July 2019
‘Buried on the side of a motorway.’ The sentence conjures up thoughts of crime or desperation, a lonely resting place in a bleak, noisy corridor where nobody stops and weeds quickly grow to make any memorial anonymous. Yet roadside burial is a serious suggestion put forward by a public health expert in Britain, as U.K cemeteries reach capacity and a ‘burial crisis’ looms.
It was John Ashton, former president of the Faculty of Public Health, who tabled the concept. He also put forward for consideration burial along cycle paths and in former industrial sites, just in case the motorway idea doesn’t seem quite grim enough for you. These ideas have been joined by the more conventional green burials, along with composting of the deceased, as potential solutions for a very pressing problem in a country where half a million people die every year.
So why is it that cemeteries in Britain are reaching capacity? Does it come down to a longer history of intensive settlement; population density relative to the size of the available land? Well in part, yes. But there’s a lot more to it than that. You see, in England, once you have been buried, you are there forever.
Hold on, isn’t that the same all over the world? As a matter of fact it’s not. In Singapore, Germany, Norway, Belgium and many other countries, reuse of grave sites is the norm. As it has been in South Australia, since federation. There are very good reasons for reuse. It ensures there will always be space for following generations and it also guarantees that funding is available so that cemeteries are maintained as attractive, beautiful places that friends, relatives and the wider public can enjoy indefinitely. The question isn’t whether it works – there’s no doubt it does – the question is generally how it works.
In South Australia, cemetery site tenure looks a lot like a leasing agreement. The lessee is referred to as the Interment Right Holder. Tenure can be purchased for any number of years (up to a maximum of 99) and it is the Interment Right Holder’s obligation to ensure that tenure remains current for their site. Cemetery operators go to considerable lengths to keep families up to date on the state of their tenure.
When tenure on a cemetery site lapses, legislation calls for a rigorous process whereby the cemetery operator must make repeated attempts to contact the Interment Right Owner or any living relatives. In a process that usually spans at least two years, letters, phone calls, emails and newspaper notices are posted, along with a notice placed on the site itself. If nobody comes forward, the site becomes the property of the cemetery operator. Even then, reuse seldom happens right away and when it does go ahead, any remains of the person previously interred in the site are recovered, respectfully interred in the same site at a greater depth, and noted in cemetery records for perpetuity. If there a headstone exists on the site, this is photographed, too. Nothing is lost.
The funds made available through reuse are invested directly into the maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery itself – horticulture, irrigation, maintenance of paths and infrastructure. So the cemetery continues indefinitely to be a beautiful place for families and the general public to visit and enjoy.
Contrast this with, say, Paris. In the City of Light there are 14,000 deaths per annum but urban cemeteries such as Pere Lachaise have only 150 places available each year. Without reuse, this historical cemetery and many like it have fallen into disrepair, with paths overgrown and many monuments crumbling into rubble. Demand is growing, prices are soaring but there’s not enough money to maintain these ‘saturated’ cemeteries. Today, most passing Parisians go to more affordable resting places in suburbs many kilometres away from the city where they played out their lives. Without a reuse plan in place, it’s only a matter of time before these outlying cemeteries also run out of space.
It’s easy to imagine that these problems might be limited to Europe, however here in Australia cemeteries such as Sydney’s historical Rookwood, where reuse has not previously been practised, are also having to consider their options as gardens approach capacity.
As the world considers options as stark as roadside burial, the case for reuse – managed in a way that is transparent, rigorous and respectful – keeps growing stronger. It is an established process that is not only sustainable but goes a long way towards preserving something important to all of us – choice.
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