Stephen Badcock has lived near the Hagley Uniting Church and its attached cemetery in northern Tasmania his entire life.
He plans to spend the afterlife in the cemetery where about a dozen of his ancestors and relatives are interred, and has purchased four burial plots there.
“I’ve always lived over the road, so I won’t go far,” he said.
But those plans are facing uncertainty as the cemetery might be sold along with the church.
Sharon Eyles cried when she heard about the potential sale of the heritage-listed property.
Her 21-month-old son Bradley was buried in the cemetery and her family has maintained the grounds for generations.
“I felt it was very upsetting because we actually have a plot near our son and, you know, his gravestone actually says ‘rest in peace’, and to think that someone else might have this cemetery …,” she said before her voice trailed off.
“It’s very important to me that we can keep this.”
About five years ago the Hagley church’s congregation dwindled to three and the remaining elderly parishioners decided they could no longer maintain the church and began to worship in nearby Westbury.
The parish council decided it could not afford to maintain the church and in 2015 asked the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania for permission to sell the building, while keeping ownership of the attached cemetery.
The last service was held in the Hagley church in January 2016.
According to the chairman of the parish council, Robert Clarke, the synod would only grant permission to sell the church if the cemetery was sold in the same transaction.
Mr Clarke said the parish council was not comfortable with the idea of selling the cemetery “for the simple reason that if somebody was to buy the property, including the cemetery, they would be responsible for the cemetery”.
“If they decided to sell in, let’s say, 10 years’ time, they would have to convince somebody else to buy it from them,” he said.
Mr Clarke said about 20 people have already paid for burial plots in the cemetery or for places for their ashes to be interred.
“People with longstanding family commitments to the community would like to be interred here, and the parish people, the people of the church, see that the cemetery is part of our mission to the community,” he said.
About 90 people took part in a meeting convened by the parish council in late March to discuss the cemetery’s future.
The meeting attendees voted unanimously to put a motion to the parish council to form a trust to manage the cemetery, and to ask the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania to sell it to them for the peppercorn rate of $1.
Meander Valley Councillor Tanya King said she believed the land on which the church and cemetery stand was originally gifted by a local landowner.
“My understanding is that the cemetery is on a separate title — there is no need for sub-division or re-allocation of boundaries, and that the cemetery could be given back to the community by way of a trust.
Stephen Badcock is hopeful the plan will gain approval.
“If it goes into private ownership then the community loses control of it, and I think the community wants to keep it as a community thing,” he said.
Sharon Eyles wholeheartedly agreed.
“There’s so many wonderful people that have been buried here and to lose all that history and what they’ve done for the community … it is very important to be able to keep this,” she said.
Cemeteries not always included in church sales
Most potential church buyers do not also want to purchase cemeteries, Andrew Hills, the New Norfolk branch manager of PRDnationwide Real Estate, said.
“I’ve had some people who want the graveyard for the history part of it and some certainly would never buy a church with a graveyard,” he said.
“They’d certainly get a better return without the graveyard.”
The Hagley church and cemetery were listed for sale for a short time in 2016 with an expected price of about $250,000, before it was withdrawn.
Both the church and the cemetery are listed in Tasmania’s heritage register, which means any works on or subdivision of the land would have to be approved by Tasmanian Heritage Council.
Cemeteries must be kept open for at least 30 years after the last burial but then whoever owns the land decides its fate.
The Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania said it was considering whether the church should be sold with the cemetery or separately and no final decision has been made.
“Synod’s preferred position is that the church and cemetery is sold as one property to ensure that the cemetery is maintained according to statutory requirements,” a spokesman said.
“It would consider any other credible proposal that would guarantee that.”
The synod said it was also looking at how about 43 other church-owned cemeteries in Tasmania can be managed in the future, especially in areas where there is no longer a worshipping congregation.