Losing The Plot: Graves To Be Recycled Under Plans To Fix Cemetery Space

Dead bodies could be dug up and the graves filled with new occupants after just a quarter of a century, under new legislation proposed by the NSW state government.

The Cemetery and Crematoria Amendment Regulation 2018 would see new graves subject to a "renewable internment right" -- which would give families ownership over the burial plot for 25 years, after which time they would have the option to renew the lease or have the remains moved to a storage unit called an ossuary house.

The grave would then be given to new occupants.

These renewable rights would be cheaper than the "perpetual internment right", which gives occupants rights over the plot forever.

The Waverley cemetery in Sydney (Getty Images)

The new regulations would only apply to new graves, not existing ones, and cemeteries would have the right to use the legislation (or not) to ensure more turnover. NSW cemeteries are filling up and space is at a premium, especially in Sydney areas, and the state is looking for solutions.

But the NSW government has come under fire for only holding a short consultation period on the changes, with a number of the more than 100 submissions to the inquiry opposing the idea.

"This law will lead to two classes of burials," said Labor MP, Member for Wallsend, Sonia Hornery.

"Perpetual monuments for those who can afford it, and those who can’t afford it will be forced to see their loved one dug up." 

Hornery said she was also concerned cemetery operators will be able to increase the price of perpetual graves, and profit "from people’s natural reluctance for limited tenure.”

Other submissions were less diplomatic.

A cemetery at Manly, Sydney (Getty Images)

"This law change stinks and I do not agree with such proposed changes," one person responded.

"I object to the possibility of my family member being exhumed from their final resting place," wrote another.

A similar policy has been in place in South Australia for some time, and it is common in parts of Europe as certain cultures value the idea of being buried with loved ones.

Running out of space

The NSW government plan is in response to a real and pressing need: Sydney, and other places around the world, are running out of space to lay the dead to rest.

The large Rookwood cemetery is close to capacity, and -- despite urgent action to obtain more land -- there are fears the city could run out of land to bury the dead. In 2017, a controversial plan to speed up the body decomposition process was uncovered as cemetery operators looked to bury more people in the same area.

(Getty Images)

"Rookwood, one of the largest in the southern hemisphere, is becoming quite full,"  Pamela Green, president of the Cemeteries and Crematoria Association of NSW, told 10 daily.

The government had tried to obtain land to create a new cemetery, she said, but this sparks a 'not in my backyard' attitude from local residents.

"That's a natural response but there needs to be much greater discussion about the need for more burial grounds," she said.

"We need to find somewhere quite large that will enable us to keep burying people, because not everyone will accept being cremated."

A government report in 2017 found current NSW cemetery space would be "exhausted" well before 2050, with almost 40,000 people projected to die in metropolitan Sydney each year from 2040.

Currently around 52,000 people die each year in NSW, with 25,000 deaths in Sydney.

Green said cremation rates were rising -- up to 75 percent of dead people were being cremated and just 25 percent buried in some parts of NSW, while the 2017 report found around two-thirds of all residents were cremated that year -- but some cultures require burial for religious or other reasons.

There are more cremations than burials in Australia (Getty Images)

The issue of cemeteries filling up has prompted novel solutions and ideas around the world. Some have suggested bodies should be buried vertically, rather than horizontally -- that is, standing rather than lying -- or burying bodies on top of each other in a stack.

Elsewhere, the idea of more environmentally-friendly burials is gaining traction. Kev Hartley is the project manager for Earth Funerals, a NSW-based company offering 'natural burials' -- where bodies are buried in land needing restoration, with chemicals and nutrients from the decomposing body to leech into soil and help promote the growth of trees and vegetation.

"The future of burial is natural burial . It's burying people in spaces identified as needing help, from an environmental standpoint," he told 10 daily.

Instead of large grave stones, tiny memorial markers are placed in the ground, alongside GPS markers to help families return to the burial site to pay respects.

Hartley said his business also invested profits made from funeral payments into other sustainable projects.

Instead of traditional coffins and gravesites, natural burials are done in areas needing environmental restoration (Getty Images)

Environment is also at the forefront of many ideas from Victoria's Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust. CEO Jacqui Weatherill  said her state still had large amounts of space for burials, in contrast to NSW, but that a combination of changing tastes and preferences, costs, and cultural factors combining to create demand for alternative funeral services.

"A new technology we're involved in is the 'living legacy tree'. Most people don't realise, cremated remains can contaminate a tree and cause it not to thrive, because of the carbon," she told 10 daily.

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"We've developed a technology where you can inject remains into a new or existing tree, which can will help it thrive and be part of a food source for the tree."

"We need to be talking to 20- and 30-year-olds about their needs and wants. There's no point us making more graves when everyone wants to be in trees," Weatherill said.