Victoria’s burial laws are creating increasingly derelict cemeteries, as graves are left to go to ruin
The grounds of Melbourne General Cemetery are dotted with the graves of notable figures from Australia’s history.
An ornate stone monument serves as a grave for Governor Sir Charles Hotham, who sparked the Eureka Stockade rebellion.
A headstone honours Boon Wurrung elder Derrimut who bridged racial divides between colonists and Indigenous people to prevent a massacre in 1835.
Iron rails surround the gravestone of prominent author and artist Louisa Meredith, while a dark, towering gravestone marks the final resting place of taxidermist John Leadbeater — after whom the possum was named.
But a quick survey of the grounds reveals many of the graves across the 43-hectare site are falling into disrepair, with broken headstones, degraded memorials and graves cracked open by exposure to the elements.
It’s a common sight in many cemeteries, which might prompt the question: Why hasn’t someone fixed these graves?
Being buried in Victoria means being buried forever
When a grave is purchased in Victoria it is in perpetuity, or in other words, forever.
While the cemetery land is owned by the Crown, the grave itself is owned by a purchaser who is known legally as the ‘holder of the right of interment’.
Graves cannot be removed or altered in any way without the express permission of the rights holder.
Philip Bachelor OAM is a lecturer of cemetery practice at Deakin University and chief executive at Box Hill Cemetery.
He said acquiring the rights to a grave was not a straightforward process.
Transferral of right of interment requires a statutory declaration and documentation verifying a person’s connection to the rights holder.
The regulations and protocols designed as a protective measure for familial burial rights have in turn become near-impenetrable barriers to future generations wanting to preserve our cemeteries.
“People do get a little frustrated sometimes with the bureaucracy, but it must be remembered that owning a grave right is a legal status,” Dr Bachelor said.
“The consequences of that become very unpleasant for all, so unfortunately there are some steps that have got to be hopped through.”
Around 80 per cent of the visitors to a cemetery will be visiting the grave of an immediate close relative such as a spouse or a parent.
As families move away, grow apart or die, fewer and fewer people visit a grave and eventually many are left with no-one to care for it.
“After a generation or two, there really isn’t anybody to visit,” Dr Bachelor said.
“There’s no doubt there’s going to be an ongoing problem.”
Local communities stymied in efforts to preserve history
The Friends of Cheltenham Pioneer Cemetery is one of Victoria’s many community groups dedicated to preserving the history of local cemeteries.
The group’s president Rosemary Reddick said while volunteers did all they could to minimise damage to graves, Victoria’s burial laws meant without the permission of a descendant or rights holder, their hands were tied.
“We’re constantly trying to find family which is an uphill battle,” Ms Reddick said.
A recent mission to save a disintegrating mid-19th century headstone from the ravages of time has turned into a long odyssey.
Their goal of cleaning the grave and erecting a plaque to preserve its history has been frustrated by consultations with Heritage Victoria staff, the governing Southern Metropolitan Cemetery Trust and an arduous search for distant relatives who may hold the right of interment to the grave site.
“It’s just a shame, and I think it will eventually in time be lost. Pieces of it have already flaked off the side,” Ms Reddick said.
Some regional cemeteries, like the Hamilton Cemetery and Port Fairy Cemetery in Victoria’s south-west, take out advertisements in the local newspaper seeking relatives who might be holders of the right of interment for dilapidated graves.
For many cemeteries across the state, available burial plots have long been sold, effectively cutting off any income source.
In turn it makes advertising and the search for relatives a financial cost that smaller cemeteries and community groups cannot afford, leaving graves untended and left to disintegrate.
The volunteers saving our graves
In Brisbane, one group of volunteers is taking matters into their own hands.
Cemetery conservationist Cate Walker first began refurbishing graves in the Cook Islands in 2016, after the plot where her mother was buried was at risk of being washed into the sea.
Since then Ms Walker and her group Australian Remembrance Army (ARA) have refurbished hundreds of graves at Brisbane’s Lutwyche Cemetery.
Queensland’s legislation regarding burials is less stringent than the laws in states like New South Wales and Victoria, allowing the ARA more leeway to rescue dilapidated graves.
“We’re fortunate here in Brisbane that the Brisbane City Council are really appreciative of what we do,” Ms Walker said.
It costs the ARA about $20 to renovate a headstone, but with a small group of volunteers and no dedicated source of funding it remains a constant struggle against the elements.
“It’s such a problem that’s not going away. These cemeteries aren’t going to magically fix themselves,” Ms Walker said.
There are more than 500 cemeteries in Victoria, each filled with grave plots guaranteed in perpetuity.
As the state’s population continues to grow and real estate for both the living and the dead becomes more expensive, the future of cemeteries may need examining.
“We need to look at future funding of all cemeteries in this state and either local government or the state government ultimately will need to accept responsibility if every cemetery is to be maintained forever, which to my understanding is the legal and moral obligation we have to our clients,” Dr Bachelor said.
States such as South Australia and Western Australia use a system of renewable interment rights, where the lease on a plot can be renewed in five year increments for a maximum of 99 years.
Laws differ between jurisdictions. Victoria has no such system for renewable rights while NSW introduced optional renewable rights in 2014.
However the option does not retroactively apply and remains unpopular, with less than 0.4 per cent of all NSW interments in 2018-19 conducted under renewable rights.
The future of our cemeteries
With no ability to renew graves or create further income, many filled cemeteries around Victoria have no financial avenue to stave off an eventual decline.
As a result, larger cemetery trusts with stable finances often absorb struggling smaller cemeteries in the surrounding area.
The steady absorption of these local cemeteries, the increasing popularity of cremation in Australia and the gradual moving of memorials to a digital space may contribute to the eventual decline of cemeteries as a community institution.
Dr Bachelor believes the potential decline of cemeteries is a social phenomenon we must learn to accept.
“We love to put a memorial in stone that we think is going to be there forever and ever and everyone is going to sit up and take notice of us,” he said.
For passionate conservationists like Cate Walker, letting cemeteries and the memory of those interred fade is not an option.
“Every town and every city has cemeteries, and there are not many I’ve been to that don’t have at least part of it dilapidated,” she said.
“So we just sit back and just watch them fall down, or do we try and conserve them before it’s too late?”