According to an article in The Guardian, the last time Sydney ran out of public burial sites, it created a health emergency. Henry Graham, the city health officer in 1866, described seeing bodies “so near the surface that you could just touch them with a walking stick or umbrella”.  Today’s Sydney would be unrecognisable to Graham, but its crisis of space might be familiar. All crown cemeteries in the city could close to new burials within 10 years, according to the 11th Hour report, a statutory review of NSW’s Cemeteries and Crematoria Act, released in February.

Waverley cemetery2Waverley Cemetery, NSW (Stock Photo)Appropriate crown burial sites for some communities, such as Māori and Russian Orthodox, could run out in three years, the report found.

“The report’s quite damning, quite disturbing,” Dr Hannah Gould, president of the Australian Death Studies Society, says. “If this is not going to shake people into action, I’m not sure what needs to be written.”

The fact that Sydney is running out of burial space is not contested, but the proposed solutions are. The city will urgently need to acquire new space to bury the dead, renew existing cemeteries, explore other forms of interment, or ideally, do all three at once.

If no action is taken, the consequences will not be as gruesome as in the 19th century, but the moral and financial implications will be serious.

The shortage of space “makes burials unaffordable … and impedes families and communities from burying loved ones in accordance with their religious customs”, the report says.

The requirement to maintain cemeteries in perpetuity after they close to new burials also “poses a significant financial risk to the state … in excess of $300 million”.

Gould says a shortage of burial space is a problem across Australia, but Sydney’s situation is uniquely dire.

In most other states cemeteries are public, but in NSW they are operated by a patchwork of public, private, church and charity bodies. To make a change, Gould says, “you need buy-in from all these different parties who are often in direct competition with each other”.

The 11th Hour report bluntly says the current model is “not fit for purpose” and recommends numerous changes, including the consolidation of the five trusts that run cemeteries on crown land – the Catholic Cemeteries Board and the four regionally divided government-run providers. (Other providers use private land, or in some cases lease from the crown.)

The chief executive of the Catholic Cemeteries Board, Peter O’Meara, says the report “was certainly critical … The report infers a catastrophic disaster looming for Sydney cemeteries … I don’t think that’s the case at all. I just don’t think the government has turned its mind sufficiently to this issue.”

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