Melbourne Cemetery aerialMelbourne Cemetery aerial viewAre cemeteries just for the dead and remembering them? Is it okay to jog or cycle through a cemetery? Should you be able to listen to live music or to dance among the gravestones?

Large metropolitan cemeteries have been common in Europe since the 18th century, when fears about sanitation caused cities to close their overcrowded churchyard burial grounds and move the dead to dedicated sites on the city outskirts.

The trend took longer to come to Australia, but as cities like Melbourne became densely populated their cemeteries were gradually moved to the urban fringe, where they now occupy wide areas of land. In 1922, Melbourne’s first major cemetery was closed to make way for the expansion of the Queen Victoria Market and its graves were relocated to suburban cemeteries.

Today, Australia’s cemeteries are places to respect, remember and contemplate the lives of loved ones for many different communities and faiths

However, space is at a premium and some of Melbourne’s most well known cemeteries have few plots remaining. Others are “closed” and have not had a burial since the early 1970s. Graves can’t be disturbed because the rights to them have been granted in perpetuity, placing considerable constraints on the operators and also limiting community use of the space.

Anthropologist Dr Hannah Gould and the DeathTech team from the University of Melbourne are working to discover and assess the potential of new technologies to enhance the experience of cemeteries, not just for bereaved families, but for wider communities.

Their Australian Research Council-funded Future Cemetery Project with the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (GMCT) looks at how these existing large public sites could be used for a range of activities that strengthen community connections, and how new cemeteries should be designed to meet future community needs.

The Long Read is here.