The Thinker

Cemeteries: Past, Present, & Future.

How has the notion of a cemetery evolved for both the living and the dead, and what should we expect for its future?

In addressing this question it is imperative that we focus on looking at it through a sociological, anthropological, philosophical and ethical framework for the deceased, the living and the surrounding culture. When addressing the question of the evolution of cemeteries, we will begin at its conception in colonial Australia and discuss its development up until present day; furthermore the research presented will explore the possible future for Australian cemeteries and the implications that may occur due to these reforms and changes within society.

During the middle of the 19th century up until the 1930’s the importance of cemetery ideal was that it be perceived as a cultural place that resonated with religious, cultural, social and historical meanings within the community.However, it was an initial answer to the sanitary problems of the overcrowded churchyards and scruples over the treatment and integrity of the corpses. Colonial Australian cemeteries and burial grounds also embraced these values and rapidly adopted these practices of location and layout that Britain had shaped. The colonists were also conscious of the more philosophical aspects of cemetery ideals, and were eager to implement appropriate and tasteful landscaping in cemeteries and burial grounds. Cemeteries performed both public and private functions of disposal, consolation and education it was a creation of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie to regulate control of bodies – both living and dead. It evolved from the principles of Enlightenment and Romanticism; and had contrasting purposes; functional utilitarianism, and aesthetic and moralistic qualities.

Sociologically, there was an understanding that the cemeteries’ landscapes would influence the behaviour of the living. John Claudious Loudon, an influential architect and landscape designer at the time, emphasised that landscape was key to influencing behaviour; he argues that “It must be obvious that the first step to rendering a churchyard [or cemetery] a source of amelioration or instruction is, to render it attractive”. This statement highlights the widespread approval of the moralistic influence of landscaped nature. Ordered nature was seen as a metaphor for refined, appropriate and civilised society, the landscape itself was designed to shape the behaviour of visitors in ways that would inculcate an understanding of moral and social values.

While society placed emphasis on the aesthetics of the cemetery landscape, there was also pressure for it to be functional. Gravestones and funerary monuments were an integral part of the commemorative landscape; this in turn created an ideal environment where personal grief and remembrance could be channelled into a physical space. This physical space landscape encouraged mourning, remembrance, consolation and faith allowing the perpetuation of the memory of the deceased and a connection between the living and the dead.

In the early settlement of the colonies, cemeteries became a significant cultural institution that churches regarded as a physical manifestation of their beliefs. Church leaders regularly reminded people of the significance of maintaining the cemetery landscape. In Sydney, 1861, Archbishop Polding reminded Roman Catholic priests of their duties by saying “The condition of many cemeteries in the archdiocese is a disgrace to the name of Christian and Catholic. I lay anew upon the priests the charge of a reformation in this respect…[cemeteries must have] a substantial fence, and some ordinary neatness and good taste in the laying out of the grounds, so that they may express somewhat of the cheerfulness of Christian hope whilst they soothe the grief of the mourner.” This quote is highly relevant to understanding the religious impact on the aesthetic of cemeteries, especially in its early conception, this piece of research shows how the physical manifestation of religion is interwoven within the aesthetics of the majority of funerary practices, layouts, monuments and overall environment. This begs the question (that will be discussed further as the research progresses) how will the aesthetics of a cemetery change in the future if society is “more transient and less religious than we were in the past”?

Evidently, a cemetery’s primary purpose is to be the space where we lay out dead to rest, but it is also a place where the living can go to research their ancestors, and to a lesser extent, review the lives of the deceased. It is not a place that is provides function solely on the loss of a known loved one. Cemeteries provide paths and boundary walls that serve functional needs, benches that provide spots for rest and relaxation, vegetation which offers aesthetic beauty, and there’s habitat for wildlife, even trees that provide clean air and shade on a hot day. While these physical and functional elements are generally at the beginning of our understanding of purpose for cemeteries, there is also an interpretive approach, this approach is pivotal in explaining how the evolutionary process of cemeteries have impacted both the living and the dead. In reading the landscape we interpret the one last taboo, death.

It is evident that cemeteries include both a tangible and an intangible legacy, the visual immediacy of a tangible legacy is alluring and easy to interpret because we can see it before us; we know it’s there – for example beautifully carved sculpture or a high quality monument. Unfortunately cemeteries intangible legacy is multifaceted; it takes shape as invisible meanings and values that are attributed to specific people. These values to no exist without being created by the living, without personal meaning being attributed. Accordingly the tangible legacy of a cemetery only becomes important because we as living humans give it worth. Exactly in the same way that religion placed importance on the aesthetics of cemeteries, they attributed worth to neatness and therefore attribute worth to a neat cemetery.

An example of how this concept can be understood is the case where; in New South Wales, one aboriginal community’s burial ground presented as a flat grassed area. Each burial was marked by a small wooden peg-no name, no formal layout, no vegetation and no paths. There was just a grassed area with a handful of simple pegs, each marked discreetly with a code that enabled the community to differentiate individuals. However in choosing to mow the lawn one day, the council greens-man decided that it would be easier to mow an open field and thus removed all the pegs. This simple act caused great distress amongst the Aboriginal community. Unfortunately there was no intangible legacy for the grass-man in this scenario; however there was complete and utter devastation to the aboriginal community who lost the resting place for their loved ones. This explores the idea that not only is it vital for all people to be able to interpret the landscape and determine its value, but this also exemplifies that the living are the ones who attribute worth to specific objects or in this case environments.

This leads us to answering the second part of the question, what should we expect for the future of our cemeteries? As a society, we are changing, and in that change; the way we perceive and how we associate to cemeteries has changed.

On the 7th of March 2015, Dulwich hill bicycle club raced around a new 1.6 kilometre circuit that represented the ‘city of the dead’s’ attempt to come alive at Rookwood cemetery. Eleri Morgan Thomas explained that “it was beautiful, with trees arching over the roads…people were attracted to the idea that it was Rookwood, and a cemetery”. This event in itself certainly makes a comment on the way society currently perceives cemeteries, it explores the idea that society is drifting away from the more morbidly dark association with death that Kellehear describes as a “shameful death” . To further this event, “Rookwood general cemeteries reserve trust announced construction would begin on its five-year plan to bring the sleeping city back to life. This will include improving roads and paths, recreational walkways, bike paths, research facilities and new condolence rooms” Rookwood trust Chief executive Fiona Heslop explained that the landscaping and construction would make the grounds a place of vitality and life and reflection and remembrance. It is almost as though we have gone back to the ideas of enlightenment and romanticism, “vitality and life” but without religion surfacing through intangible manifestations.

If religion is no longer at the forefront of representing cemeteries, because society as a whole is “more transient and less religious than we were in the past” then we can plan to see less of the religious monuments, a different type of emphasis placed on the level of neatness of a cemetery, and lastly but most importantly that the concept of being laid to rest for eternity has been undermined.

Due to the pressure of limited burial space the concept of being laid to rest for eternity is under attack. In late 2013 the New South Wales parliament passed a new legislation that all cemeteries will offer families of the deceased a choice between renewable intermittent rights of 25 years or a permanent 99 year lease. With burial space expected to run out within 40 years, the legislation – which will only apply to new burials and cremations – is designed to extend the life of cemeteries and encourage re-use of burial land.  The New South Wales Primary industries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson said that “This legislation allows cemeteries to free up space, such as using space between graves, old roads or by adding a layer of fill to create additional interment sites. While these renewal schemes involve moving and disposing of monuments, it will not involve disposal of remains.”

In the case of renewable tenure on future graves and wall niches containing ashes, rights would be granted for 25 years, with a right to renew ever 25 years, up to a maximum of 99 years. At the end of the 25 year term, there would be a two year period to allow cemetery managers to use all “reasonable means” to find the lease holder and offer an extension. Before a grave could be reused, remains would be placed in an ossuary box and re-interred, deeper in the grave, or placed in an ossuary house.

As we can see from this article, society has evolved and the cemeteries will have to alter its processes to keep up with society’s evolution, evolution from freedom of religious ideologies to the overpopulation in cemeteries calling the need for new funerary practices to be created.

In Allan Kellehear’s Social History of Dying Kellehear clarifies that “Death is often associated with a renewal of fertility, that which is renewed may either be the fecundity of the people, or of the animals and crops, or of all three. In most cases what would seem to be revitalised in funeral practices is that resource which is culturally conceived to be most essential to the reproduction of the social order.” This clarification thoroughly explains how in funerary practices (cemetery environment), the resource which is culturally conceived (tangible and intangible legacy) is most essential to the reproduction of the social order. So to answer the question, how has the notion of a cemetery evolved for both the living and the dead we can see that colonial Australia imitated the values that other countries placed on their cemeteries, as religion interwove its intangible value on the aesthetics of a cemetery, it evolved again. We are currently seeing another evolutionary process due to lack of religious prevalence and due to the overpopulation of our cemeteries with limited burial space becoming an issue. (Barrett, 2009)

Referenced Material

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Power, J. (2013). Resting place might not be your last. Sydney: Sydney Morning Herald.

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