Waverley Cemetery is among many Sydney graveyards with limited capacity. Photo: Alec Smart

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BY JADE MORELLINI

Sydney cemeteries are running out of space with only 15 years of burial capacity left, and the rising death rates are not making it any better.

Death rates are increasing at fewer than 2% compound per annum and will increase at this rate for the next 34 years. In NSW at the moment, there are 500,000 deaths each year and by 2051, this number will exceed 100,000 deaths. This highlights that in just over three decades, Australia will experience an increase in deaths of over 100%, compared with today.

“This is where the problem is, we may not be able to find more efficient uses of land to cater for this,” Chief Executive Officer at Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, Graham Boyd said. “There is still a very large increase in deaths occurring and we cremate around 70% of those, and the remaining 30% is quite significant in terms of land use.”

“Waverly Cemetery is quite an old cemetery, it’s in a spectacular location and was established in the 1800s,” said planner at Urbis Planning, Kate Ryan. “I know with a lot of older cemeteries, it is hard for cemetery managers to determine how much space is left, because record keeping over 100 years is traditionally quite poor. So there are areas in the cemetery where they are not actually sure how much space is left.”

The demand for land is extremely high and with a growing population, buildings and houses are taking priority, leaving cemeteries behind and making it difficult to find open areas for new cemeteries. It could take five to ten years to find land suitable enough for a new cemetery, to conduct studies, rezone it with community participation and provide infrastructure to begin operations.

“We’re looking at Bumborah Point,” Boyd said, “and Bumborah Point is 3.8 hectares of land next to the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park that’s potentially got another five years burial capacity. In addition to that, we are still looking for land that is suitable for cemetery use down at the South Coast.

“The Bumborah Point re-zoning is very important to us and we work with the Aboriginal land councils both the local Aboriginal land council and the state one. We are going for a former re-zoning application to Randwick Council.”

If the application submitted by Urbis Planning to Randwick Council is successful, an additional 2000 graves may be available.
Despite cremation gaining popularity over the past few years, it is against some religion’s beliefs. The Jewish, for example forbid cremation and according to the 2011 census, more than any other religion, Judaism is highly localised in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.

“Cremation and the reuse of graves certainly won’t be for everyone,” Ryan said. “Sydney is a multicultural place so it is expected that we will continue to have a higher proportion of burials compared to other areas just because we are so multicultural and certain religions definitely prefer or require full body burials.”

The Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (SMCT) proposed a plan to build Australia’s first catacombs in early April which will offer a great deal of space for new corpses. This is an additional 7000 burial spaces and this can be used and re-used for centuries to cater for NSW growing population.

“The Catacomb project is something we are still developing; our architectures and engineers are well developed. The cost for this project will exceed 10 million dollars but we aren’t sure of the actual amount yet because we do it by stage development, not all at once,” Boyd said.
This plan may be a temporary solution if it proves to be effective as it caters for those who prefer a full body burial and is allowed for religions.

“This could have significant appeal to those religious or cultural groups, we are going to consult with the community and the Greek Orthodox, Jews and Italians. I’ve spoken to some Greek Orthodox community members over at Woronora and they are quite keen on ossuary boxes.”