THERE have been as many ways of dealing with human bodies throughout history as there have been societies and religions.
In Tibet, for example, bodies are chopped up and left for vultures in so-called “sky burials”. Here, we bury people, or, more recently, cremate them.
Either way, Australians have generally gone to the grave assured of a permanent space in a cemetery or crematorium.
But thanks to growing population pressures, the NSW government is proposing a two-tier scheme of interment, whereby people could opt for “renewable interment rights” of 25 years – renewable to a maximum of 99 years – rather than the traditional perpetual right.
Wallsend MP Sonia Hornery, whose electorate takes in Newcastle’s famous Sandgate Cemetery, has raised the alarm over the changes, arguing that ordinary people could be priced out of a permanent burial.
Indeed, the government acknowledges a price impact, but it flips the argument to say consumers will benefit because 25-year burials will become cheaper than permanent ones.
The government’s reasons for change are obvious enough. It says population growth means that Sydney cemeteries will run out of space by the 2050s.
It says people prefer cemeteries to be within a reasonable distance of homes, for visiting purposes, and that “better use of existing cemetery space is crucial” if the space shortage is to be alleviated.
On the other hand, NSW does have some 850 cemeteries and 49 crematoria, and the government acknowledges that the pressures will be lower in regional NSW.
Importantly, the government stresses that perpetual burials will remain open to everyone, and that there will be no impact on existing perpetual rights.
But the reality is that these changes, if approved, must necessarily result in a two-tiered system – especially in cemeteries, where headstones and other grave furniture are important markers of our relationship with those who have gone before us.
Cemeteries have always been places of quiet, and of reverence, and the idea that one person’s remains will be dug out of the ground – to be stored in an ossuary – to enable someone else to be slid into place, is not an easy one to accept, even in these more secular times we live in.
One alternative might be to encourage more cremations, and to leave the dead in peace, to lie where they are.