The NSW government’s solution to a looming shortfall of burial plots has been described as “disrespectful” by respondents to an internal government study.
The August 2016 study – by Woolcott Research and commissioned by the NSW Department of Industry – delved into attitudes towards interment and death, specifically looking at the level of knowledge around “renewable rights”.
Renewable rights offer families the option to use a burial site for a renewable tenure of 25-years to a maximum of 99 years.
It is hoped the introduction of a renewable rights option would free up space in Sydney’s overcrowded cemeteries by allowing for a higher turnover of plots, as well as offering a cheaper alternative to “perpetual rights” where remains are left undisturbed forever.
But respondents to the study, the findings of which are being fed into a consumer guide, found the idea of renewable rights distasteful.
“I’m shocked by that, that’s so disrespectful of the person,” said one respondent.
“We never disturb anyone – that’s their final resting place,” said another.
According to the report, spontaneous reactions from interviewees were “largely negative”. Responses to a survey on the subject did include some positive comments, but “overall though, these initial top of mind reactions were largely neutral to negative.”
“Most qualitative participants expressed a degree of concern because they had assumed that once you bury someone, they are there forever,” the report stated.
“It follows that hearing of the option of renewable rights was a very big surprise to most.”
Respondents were also worried their own loved ones might be “dug up” at a later date under a renewable-rights system, with many remarking that they were “shocked,” “horrified” or “appalled” by the idea. Others likened it to losing a sense of history, mentioning that they occasionally enjoyed wandering through graveyards.
“To them the idea of seemingly ‘deleting’ a part of history was considered sad,” the report stated.
“I’m shocked by that, that’s so disrespectful of the person.”
Government study participant.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Industry said further consultation with Crown cemetery operators and concerned religious groups has taken place since the release of the Woolcott report in 2016.
She said renewable interment was just one initiative proposed to address cemetery land capacity shortages.
The NSW government is counting on the public warming to the idea of renewable rights with annual deaths in NSW predicted to double, from 2011 rates, in 34 years. If there is no change to cremation and burial rates, cemetery capacity in greater Sydney will be exhausted as early as 2051.
And if cremation rates fall, capacity is predicted to be exhausted much sooner.
Around half of all burials in NSW are conducted by local councils and a third are conducted by crown trusts. The remainder are mostly conducted by private operators.
There are 851 working cemeteries in NSW, but only two – Waverley and Kemps Creek cemeteries – which offer a renewable-rights option. Land suitable for new graveyards is scarce, and existing graveyard sites are under pressure from expanding metropolitan centres.
Graham Boyd, Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust has been investigating ways to increase the lifespan of the cemeteries under his care.
He said one option was to reuse historic burial plots, some of which may have enough room to accommodate a second body from the same family.
“At Woronora Cemetery we have 23,000 burial [plots] which have the potential for a second internment, because we have operating since 1895,” he said.
The NSW government released a “Better Regulation Statement” earlier this month proposing reforms which would allow crown trusts to offer a renewable-rights option.
The document included concerns the looming shortfall of plots may lead to a land grab for prize burial sites.
The Woolcott report also provided a window into the cultural and religious sensibilities of different ethnic groups. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants said there was a tradition for the deceased to be returned to the area or community from where they originated.
Buddhists, however, believed the spirit left body to be reborn and “therefore the idea of having family members visit a grave site or cemetery was said to be less important”.
Chinese and Vietnamese participants told researchers there was a special time in the lunisolar calendar called “Ching Ming” when friends and relatives visited cemeteries to offer gifts.
Muslim participants said it was considered very important to be able to visit their loved ones after death at a cemetery.
Participants who did not follow a particular religion still felt they would, nevertheless, like a religious-style ceremony.
“This was likened to wanting to get married in a church, even if the couple are not religious,” the report stated.