Our cemeteries are filling up. Is reusing grave sites the answer?

In death, just as in life, our burgeoning population is posing some problems.

Australia’s cemeteries are filling up. Those on Crown land are estimated to exhaust their available space in roughly the next 30 years. 

In NSW, it’s likely to happen in just ten years.

That’s despite most Australians – roughly 70 per cent – being cremated after dying, says Hannah Gould, president of the Australian Death Studies Society, and part of the University of Melbourne’s Death Tech team, which researches the impact of technology on death and grieving. 

She says of the approximately 170,000 people who die annually in Australia, about a third are buried in a cemetery.

Given Australia’s on track to double its current death count by 2070, dwindling burial space warrants some attention.

According to the regulations in most Australian states and territories, a burial must be preserved in perpetuity – that is, your lease on a grave site is an indefinite one.

But exactly how those leases, or interment rights, operate differ significantly according to where you live.

In Tasmania, you have the option of leasing a grave with a finite term. That’s called renewable tenure. Not so in Victoria. There, leases are permanent only. In WA, they’re renewable only.

“It’s incredibly complicated,” Dr Gould tells ABC RN’s Sunday Extra.

But one state is leading the way, with a model that considers the problem of finite space – and argues the rest of Australia should follow suit.

Large headstones in various states of disrepair against a stormy grey sky.
Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery is the largest necropolis in the southern hemisphere, and it’s fast running out of space. (ABC News: Mridula Amin)

How reusing grave sites can help
Building more cemeteries might seem an obvious solution “but unfortunately, it’s easier said than done”, Dr Gould says.

Cemetery regulations, “our general reluctancy to think about death” and “not insignificant push-back from surrounding communities when new cemeteries are proposed”, for example at Sydney’s Wallacia, all add to the complication, she explains.

But there’s another option for dealing with dwindling space.

Grave reuse has been legally practised in South Australia since 1863, explains Robert Pitt, CEO of the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority.

When a grave site’s interment rights are issued, it’s for a period of either 50 or 99 years. After that point, graves are available to be reused.

The process of reuse is a regulated one. “We have to try and contact the family [and] write to the interment right holder a year before it expires,” Mr Pitt says, and families can extend the interment right if they wish to.

“We put a notice on the grave to contact the administration. We advertise the site and have to wait for two years [after it expires]. If, at the end of two years, no-one contacts us, we can then reuse the site.”

The legislation requires that the cemetery take photos of the headstones and epitaphs, preserving them and all burial records forever.

It’s then a process of recycle and reuse.

“The headstone is taken away and crushed, and the stone is used back in the cemetery,” Mr Pitt explains.

“Then we can do what’s called a ‘lift and deepen’, where we dig down and recover the skeletal remains, and put them [further] down at three meters in the same grave and they stay there forever.”

The grave can then be sold to someone else, mitigating the problem of finite cemetery space.

Mr Pitt says at one Adelaide cemetery about 200 to 300 graves are reused per year.

As a result, that cemetery “has served the South Australian public for over 160 years, and will keep doing so”, he says.

A statue of an angel in the Bendigo cemetery surrounded by gravestones.
At Victorian cemeteries, all grave sites are perpetual. Not so over the border in South Australia. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma Nobel)

Time to rethink ‘what we’ve always done’?
In South Australia, a grave site of limited tenure, that is, one that will be reused after a certain point, is an ‘opt-out’ proposition. That means reuse is the default option.

“I think the South Australian model has really been leading the way,” Dr Gould says, arguing the opt-out arrangement is key to its success.

“I really think Australia needs to look very closely at renewable tenure, and renewable tenure as the default option.

“It’s standard in a lot of countries around the world,” she says.

Burial rules around Australia
Whole-body burials have different rules from cremations, and generally exclude Indigenous burials on Country. Here are the rules around the country:

  • NSW: perpetual tenure and recently introduced ‘opt-in’ renewable tenure
  • SA: renewable tenure for the past 60 years
  • WA: mandatory renewable tenure since 1986
  • Tasmania: both perpetual tenure and, since 2002, the option of limited tenure
  • Victoria, ACT, NT and QLD: perpetual tenure

Source: An Investigation of Death Care and the Funeral Industry in Australia

Dr Gould says it’s important that people have appropriate access to longer-term or permanent tenure should they want it, for example for religious or cultural reasons. 

But she argues that in most cases, perpetuity – having a grave site forever – is simply chosen “because that’s what everyone else is doing”.

Making decisions around how to dispose of a dead family member’s body is extremely difficult, Dr Gould says.

“[People] come to this kind of interaction with very little prior knowledge about death and dying. We don’t like to think about it … and then, all of a sudden, we have to make a really quick decision. You have to call a funeral director, say, in 24 hours or 48 hours. 

“And there’s a huge tendency to just do what we’ve always done.”

Australians open to alternatives in death care
Along with a team of researchers, Dr Gould conducted a study in 2020 about attitudes towards burial, cremation and alternative methods of body disposal.

She says it revealed “a lot of people have quite neutral or ‘I don’t know, I don’t want to think about it’ kind of responses”.

But it also showed that, when asked to consider the question of body disposal, “Australians can be quite open to alternatives”, Dr Gould says.

She says it supports the argument for changing the way things currently operate in most states and territories.

She considers renewable tenure to have similar perception issues to organ donation: as a newly introduced idea, people can be quite negative about it, but once it’s an established practice, many are more comfortable with the idea.

She argues that unless renewable tenures are the standard option, with people given the choice to opt out, rather than in, “then we’re not going to be able to convince enough people to adopt it”.

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