While Australia is often imagined as a rural country—a notion reinforced by cultural products like Crocodile Dundee (1986) and by the rough-and-ready sensibility that Australians project of themselves—it is, in fact, highly urbanized. Over 67 percent of the population live in eight capital cities.1Australian Bureau of Statistics, “50 Years of Capital City Population Change,” released December 20, 2022. Accessed April 28, 2023. https://www.abs.gov.au/articles/50-years-capital-city-population-change Since 2000, the country’s three largest urban areas—Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane—have grown at a blistering rate. This growth has been accomplished by the urbanization of new land, creating outer outer suburbs over 40 kilometers from city centers; and through the densification of inner suburbs, where apartment towers have replaced low-rise houses and light industrial terrains. This growth spurt has put a focus on infrastructure, primarily automotive, with several “big build” tunnel and bridge projects and, to a lesser extent, the “green infrastructure” of parklands, recreation facilities, and hiking trails. This article looks at a different kind of infrastructure, cemeteries, and the various groups who use, and care for them. It contends that infrastructures of deathcare are always present, but rarely visible, in our cities. The notable exception is the cemetery, a highly visible deathcare infrastructure, and a uniquely mono-use urban landscape. Perpetual interment rights mean that many nineteenth century cemeteries are nearly full. Without money from new interments, maintenance issues are mounting, and it is increasingly volunteers from surrounding communities who care for plantings, aging headstones, and trees.
The maintenance and provisioning for cemeteries expose conflicts in how we imagine care and memorialization in the built environment. This article is based on three years (2020–2023) of qualitative research conducted primarily in Melbourne, along with a series of shorter research trips and interviews in Adelaide, Sydney, and Perth. It draws on fieldwork with large cemetery trusts and with the ad-hoc civic groups who tend to, and advocate for, the perpetual care of graves in aging cemeteries. I argue that cemeteries are part of a larger system of deathcare infrastructure that includes funeral directors, palliative care centers, and alternative practitioners (“death doulas,” celebrants, and technological innovators pursuing new processes for body disposal). Within this system cemeteries are unique in that they are spatially bound and municipally managed. They are the most visible part of a deathcare system that, by design and custom, operates out of the public view. They are also the most static, defined by their emplacement, and not by routes or flows that form the rest of the infrastructural system. Cemeteries do change but at a near-glacial place, making it difficult to register those changes.
I start by examining deathcare during a period of increased visibility: the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. I then move on to discuss the cemetery “capacity crisis” that has, since 2020, been the subject of debate, starting in New South Wales and spreading to several other states. I end by discussing the volunteers, primarily in Melbourne, who act as stewards of aging cemeteries via “friends of” groups. Taken together, these three sections illuminate the infrastructural qualities of cemeteries and the networks of maintenance and care that undergird their existence. In an era of less state capacity and rationed infrastructure, volunteerism plays a bigger role, even when volunteers have clear objectives for their participation. This discussion occurs with a backdrop of shifting religiosity, new practices of bodily disposition, and rising values for urban land — all developments that have put the future of cemeteries into question. Yet the longevity and resilience of this form of memorialization have surprised many.
Cemeteries as Infrastructure
In the last decade, elected officials, seemingly of all denominations, have promoted big infrastructure projects. Indeed, the word “infrastructure” has come to represent “a robust national counterpoint to corrosive global flows”, a bolstering of the local, and a reinvestment in underrepresented people, and places.2Laura Bear, “‘Alternatives’ to Austerity: A Critique of Financialized Infrastructure in India and Beyond,” Anthropology Today 33, no 5 (2017): 3. For scholars, there has been a renewed interest in the prosaic landscapes of water management systems, public libraries, and protest encampments, diverse sites that have all been studied as infrastructures. Those examining this “infrastructural turn” often point to Susan Leigh Star’s influential work “The Ethnography of Infrastructure” as a starting post. In that 1999 article she lays out a definition of infrastructure: it is (for those who are well-served by it) “a system of substrates… [that] is by definition invisible, part of the background for other kinds of work.”3Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no 3 (1999): 377–391. The invisibility that cloaks infrastructure is, in Star’s telling, pulled away in times of crisis. The care, repair, and maintenance that are integral to the frictionless running of infrastructures falls off; and the under-the-hood workings are exposed. Even if the system continues to run, the exposure of its workings—and their fragility—threatens its function. Secret vulnerabilities, once brought to light, become design flaws requiring corrective action. The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic was a time of crisis that exposed deathcare infrastructure, but this crisis was not evenly distributed. In some places infrastructure failed totally, but, even in places where it held strong, its stability was put in doubt by well-publicized failures elsewhere.
Deathcare is, as Lakhbir Jassal puts it, a “business that specializes in the logistics of… corpse/body movement: organizing ambulances, storing and sorting bodies, taking them to graves or crematoria in hearses and delivering them to the increasingly diverse array of “resting” places.”4Lakhbir Jassal, “Necromobilities: The Multi-Sited Geographies of Death and Disposal in a Mobile World,” Mobilities 10, no. 3 (2015): 486–509, 490. Movement is key to deathcare: corpses, considered impure in most cultures, are removed from the world of the day-to-day and prepared for their final disposition. Necromobility was, in years past, studied as a facet of deathcare specific to transnational migrant communities, such as Hindus and Sikhs living in the UK, or the funeral funds established by Turkish-Germans.5Osman Balkan, “Till Death Do Us Depart: Repatriation, Burial, and the Necropolitical Work of Turkish Funeral Funds in Germany,” Muslims in the UK and Europe,ed. Yasir Suileman (Cambridge University Press, 2015): 19–28. Yet mobility has become the norm in Western industrialized countries, as deathcare systems grow increasingly sprawling and decentralized.
In Australia, the funeral and cemetery businesses have been dramatically consolidated in recent years, with one multinational controlling over 30 percent of funeral homes. Even “ethno-market” funeral homes specializing in bilingual services for specific communities, like Chinese Australians or Coptic Australians, are frequently owned by a larger “parent” company. While funeral directors operate with a degree of independence, they often adhere to management strategies and procurement practices developed in the UK and US Independent funeral homes are also likely to adopt practices from abroad spread via social media and online forums for Funeral Directors. This increasingly competitive marketplace, with slimmer margins, has also led to the use of spatial tactics, like the transport of bodies from Victoria to New South Wales for cheaper cremation in privately-operated crematoria. This taken for granted mobility came to an abrupt halt with Covid-related border closures that shut off interstate crossings, and with physical distancing requirements.
For most consumers of deathcare interacting with a local funeral home or cemetery, the supply chains and mobilities operating behind the scenes are out of sight and out of mind. The “normally invisible quality of working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks,” Star holds. “Even when there are back-up mechanisms or procedures,” she notes, “their existence further highlights the now-visible infrastructure.”6Susan Leigh Star, “The ethnography of infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3 (1999): 377–391. At the beginning of the Covid pandemic, images of refrigerated trailers behind morgues and funeral homes became common, suggesting the shortcomings of existing deathcare infrastructures. During the first wave of Coronavirus deaths in New York City some 205 trucks—originally used for the transport of refrigerated groceries—were parked in the streets to handle the bodies of over 10,000 dead. While “symbolizing just how dramatically our reality has shifted”7Gine Cherelus, “‘Dead inside’: The Morgue trucks of New York City,” New York Times, 27 May, 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/27/opinion/coronavirus-morgue-trucks-nyc.html the vehicles also called attention to the hidden-in-plain-sight hospital bays, mortuaries, coroner’s offices, and potter’s fields where the dead pass through cities on a daily basis. In Australia, the death toll from Covid was not enough to warrant refrigerated trucks but, significantly, cemetery managers were asked to inventory their land and draw up plans for trench graves, to be used if Covid precipitated a “mass casualty event”.8Hannah Gould and Samuel Holleran, An Essential Service; Experience of Australian Deathcare Workers (Melbourne, Australia: University of Melbourne, 2021), https://deathtech.research.unimelb.edu.au/2021/09/05/an-essential-service/ While cemeteries did not receive more bodies during the height of the pandemic (in fact, long lockdowns caused excess mortality rates to drop slightly), Covid put a great deal of focus on municipally managed cemeteries. Images of trench burial in Iran, India, and Brazil were received by diasporic communities in Australia and elsewhere. Physical distancing rules in states where the virus had eluded quarantine measures, like Victoria, limited funerals to ten mourners for months and limits on movement hindered grave visitation: placing cemeteries in the crosshairs of anti-lockdown activists.
Deathcare is predominantly an infrastructure of flows, and it was in the disruption of these flows that Covid’s impact was most visible. The very notable exception to the flows of necromobility is burial. Families are invested in cemeteries as the “moorings”9Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings,” Mobilities 1, no. 1 (2006): 1-22, https://doi.org/10.1080/17450100500489189 that make all mobilities possible. The rise of cemeteries as a built form in the early nineteenth century is predicated on the stability: they were to be multi-denominational, “scientifically managed” by municipal authorities (or governors appointed by joint-stock companies), and accessible by expanded transportation networks (their remove from city centers being a selling point and defining feature of their “modern” and “hygienic” update to tightly packed churchyards). Authorities who manage cemetery spaces today construct the image of a stable and “eternal” resting place, despite the mobility inherent with change through time. In the state of Victoria, all burials are defined as “in perpetuity,” and while some grave renewal does still occur, it happens on a timeline that ensures that descendants of the dead will be removed by several generations. Therefore, cemeteries are seen not just places for the interment of the dead but open-air archives, where public records (headstones) brave the elements, and where funerary art illuminates the religious sentiment and tastes of past generations. The relative fixity of cemetery spaces has always been in stark contrast to the movement at their perimeter.
The New Cemetery “Crisis”
In August 2020, New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous state, had successfully contained the spread of Covid and life was proceeding almost as normal. Yet, that month, it was the NSW government that released a hand-wringing report ominously titled “The 11th Hour.” It detailed a “capacity crisis” that had grown particularly acute in cemeteries around Metro Sydney; and it advised that, if left unchecked, some cemeteries “will close within three years and all existing operational Crown [public land] cemeteries will close to new burials within 10-12 years.”10New South Wales Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, “The 11th Hour: Solving Sydney’s Cemetery Crisis”, August 2020. https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/la/papers/Pages/tabled-paper-details.aspx?pk=79204, 12.
The report begins by establishing “the importance of cemeteries” as a “critical social infrastructure… the equivalent status in our planning system… [to] infrastructure like schools and hospitals.”11Ibid, 168. It also links cemeteries’ shortfall in space to “rapid population growth” and the “competing pressures of other infrastructure developments.” While traditional infrastructure projects were seen as key to the “legacy building” of local elected officials, deathcare infrastructure was not something politicians wanted to put their name on. The report notes that, despite massive population growth, “the NSW Government, through its Crown cemetery operators [cemetery trusts], has not built a new cemetery in Sydney in over 80 years”; a period during which the city’s population nearly tripled.12Ibid, 87. During that time the city expanded its footprint four-fold moving its population center from the eastern harbor front neighborhoods west to new suburbs dominated by single family homes. While the urbanization of land in Sydney’s west did make some provisions for playing fields, green reserves, and other social infrastructure, cemeteries were not built. As old cemeteries in middle-ring suburbs filled up, families were forced to travel further and further to visit gravesites. The report notes that over 20 percent of Sydney families traveled over twenty minutes by car for grave visitation.13Ibid, 91. By public transport, travel times could easily be over an hour, and many of the people most likely to visit cemeteries in Australia—women in their seventies and eighties of Southern European descent who have lost a partner—are also the least likely to possess a driver’s license.14Philip Bachelor, Sorrow and Solace: The Social World of the Cemetery (London: Routledge, 2004), 41. Yet, building cemeteries as integral parts of new suburbs was perceived as a non-starter.
Efforts to create new cemeteries through the conversion of disused land have been met with hostility. While some might see an historic cemetery, like Sydney’s Waverly, as an amenity, new cemeteries are often perceived as disruptive to quality of life, and harmful to the resale value of one’s home. An effort to convert an ailing municipal golf club on Crown land to a cemetery in 2019 was met with stiff local opposition in Wallacia, a Sydney exurb. While approval for the cemetery was eventually granted, the opposition, including the local council members and the region’s MP, was still ongoing at the time of writing. Community members linked the new cemetery to increased traffic, pollution (via an onsite crematorium), decline in property values, and emotional harm to children; one local said, “I’ve got young kids … I don’t want them to live next to a cemetery.”15Tony Ibrahim, “Wallacia locals fight against plans for two cemeteries as Sydney runs out of burial space,” ABC Western Sydney, 16 February, 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-17/wallacia-cemetery-blueprint-upsets-local-residents/13158956 At an online community forum, held in February 2021, dozens of residents spoke out against the plans for the cemetery. A uniting theme was the notion that a new cemetery was not — and could never become — a community amenity. Rather than representing a green respite or place for mourning and spirituality, it would be a “stone yard”, devoid of green features. Some went further to suggest that new graves would not be for “locals” but would be aimed at Western Sydney suburbs, home to large migrant communities from Asia, East Africa, and the Levant. The report refers to the “strong community resistance and difficulties achieving rezoning and development approvals” that have made land acquisition for new cemeteries “a conundrum”. That opposition, the report suggests, might have an “outdated” view of what a cemetery is, imagining the “monumental cemeteries of the 19th century” (presumably overwrought and overbearing) rather than “contemporary cemetery design… more akin to parkland settings – with lakes, pathways and modern art displays”. Despite efforts from the cemetery trusts to conduct outreach and “educate” community members about new landscape masterplans, some “discrete communities in Sydney [remain] opposed to new cemeteries in their locale.”16 The 11th Hour, 118.
Beyond the not-in-my-backyard opposition of locals, cemetery trusts have also struggled to find their champions in government. Not only are cemeteries unloved by the decision-makers who plan and maintain infrastructure, but they are also unclaimed. In some jurisdictions, like the state of Victoria, trusts report to the Ministry of Health, with an attendant focus on the safety and hygiene of cemeteries as spaces of interment. In NSW, cemeteries report to the Ministry of Planning, where their secondary uses as parks, and green infrastructure, is given greater priority. Efforts to nationalize cemetery policy have been largely unsuccessful, resulting in a legislative patchwork. While multi-acre cemeteries might represent a large percentage of the greenspace in a local government area, they have very limited access to money set aside for biodiversity, and no access to the budget for parks and open space.
Trusts in Victoria and NSW are self-funded entities that generate revenue from interment rights. This means that older cemeteries (mostly dating from the mid- to late-nineteenth century) can drain finances, because their historic burials require a lot of care, but they bring in no additional money. Cemetery managers have made great efforts to “rationalize” their groundscapes in order to bring down costs, including: the removal and lying flat of destabilized headstones, the replacement of pathways and grassy verges with gravel, and the removal of iron rails (and other memorial elements) not conducive to mowing. Mapping, GIS, and computer-aided inventory management systems have also been used to find space for new grave plots within old cemeteries. In several cemeteries, storage sheds, bathroom blocks, and garages were razed to make way for new burials and (since the legalization of above-ground burial in the early 2000s) mausolea. Cemeteries have also created new niches, and other spaces, for the interment of cremated remains (cremains), but because the interment of cremains in a cemetery is not compulsory (in contrast to some European countries), it is estimated that two-thirds of families walk off with ash remains for private scattering or interment in the home. In conversations with cemetery users, some pointed to a demographic shift in burial practices: new cemetery plots are increasingly marketed towards religious and cultural communities for whom burial is still mandated, including Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and conservative strains of Catholicism. Respondents felt that Protestant Australians, who make up most historic burials, would not be represented in great numbers in cemeteries of the future.
The 11th Hour report momentarily shed light on the spatial constraints of burial; it also jump-started the consolidation of Sydney’s metropolitan cemetery trusts into a single operating entity, called OneCrown. The move created a “too-big-to-fail” land manager that could offset the cost of maintaining aging cemeteries with revenue from new burials in cemeteries at the urban periphery. However, many smaller cemeteries remain; they are operated independently, by churches, and local councils and these are heavily reliant on the labor and care of volunteers. While OneCrown may help to reduce administrative and operational costs it still does not address the spatial issues related to the perpetual care of graves.
While the Covid crisis revealed people’s worst fears about indignity in death (via images of cooling trucks and trench graves) the “capacity crisis” revealed by the 11th Hour report was a moment of self-disclosure, planned by the industry to initiate change. The costs of managing infrastructure in perpetuity could not be operationalized and the stewards of these spaces took the drastic move of outing these shortcomings to the public with the hope that it might result in industry reorganization (which it did), and a change in sentiment about both the siting of cemeteries and the institution of burial in perpetuity (it is less clear if public opinion has changed in this respect). The effort to reframe the discourse around cemeteries, from local burden to amenity, is still ongoing and may depend on the nuances of landscape design that effectively shift places of burial and mourning to “multi-use” cemetery–park hybrids.
Caring for the Cemetery
Informants in this study put forward differing, often conflicting, views on the future of ageing cemeteries. One informant, a landscape architect who has worked with several Australian cemetery trusts, noted that “every cemetery will eventually become a park.” This assertion came in stark contrast to community members and religious leaders, one of whom had stood up at a forum (organized by my research group) and stated flatly, “I’m not trying to turn your parks into cemeteries, so please don’t turn my cemetery into your park.” The difference might be explained by the longue durée timeframe the landscape architect had in mind—over the course of centuries, he claimed, the kinship and community ties that link people to graves wane. Eventually, cemeteries live on as protected “burial grounds,” but visitation by descendants ceases entirely. Headstones fall down, and plants flourish. In order to better design cemeteries for the future, he argued, we need to think of them first and foremost as green spaces for respite and for the intermingling of nature and culture. When they are thought of as green spaces, they are also more legible as places that fit into existing notions of stewardship and care.
In the last twenty years, over a dozen “friends of” groups have sprung up in cemeteries across Melbourne, primarily to supplement the efforts of local cemetery trusts. These groups organize “working bees” to clear brush, plant flowers, and clean heritage graves. They work in collaboration with cemetery trusts, their volunteer efforts picking up the shortfall in labor that that trusts can assign to their “legacy” sites, but group members also subtly subvert cemetery managers. Through interviews and participation in clean-up days, I heard stories about “cheeky” shrub plantings that were not officially permitted by trusts, and other do-it-yourself improvements. It was clear that “friends of” group members, many of whom were sixty-plus and had lived in the surrounding neighborhoods for years, saw themselves as the issue area experts on their local cemeteries. This also had to do with the de-professionalization of staff who work for cemetery trusts, where, in many cases, casualized workers have replaced on-staff horticulturalists and gardeners. “Weed whacker guys,” bemoaned one volunteer, “come through and they’re not paying attention, they could easily swing around and damage a 150-year-old headstone, and there’d be no way to put it back together.” Volunteers see themselves as capable of providing a greater level of care and coordination often for spaces that they unambiguously see as theirs.
Cemetery “friends of” groups see their role as twofold: they are stewards, caring for flora and fauna, and they are interpreters of cemeteries’ history, organizing tours and applying for small grants to preserve the records and monuments of cemeteries that were opened in the 1850s and 1860s. In these spaces, memorialization, urban ecology, and recreation overlap. In one conversation, a volunteer mentioned half a dozen aims of her group including: connecting bureaucratic cemetery trust to community heritage, preserving Victorian-era history, advocating for those buried in unmarked graves, offsetting the heat-island effect of asphalted-over cityscapes, and providing habitat for birds and bats in heritage trees. The cemetery, it seemed, was not just a node in a deathcare infrastructural network but also part of the city’s memory-scape, green infrastructure, and more-than-human ecology.
As they grow older, many cemeteries begin to look more like parks as grave-top plantings like yucca and rosemary become overgrown, wide paths are narrowed to make way for more graves, and, perhaps most importantly, surrounding neighborhoods densify. During Covid lockdowns in Victoria, when residents limited to walks within five kilometers of their home, several informants told me that they felt dog parks, reserves, and footpaths were too crowded but that they felt safe walking without a mask in cemeteries, and “there was something profound” about walking amongst the graves of people who might have died of smallpox or Spanish Flu “during another global pandemic.” So, while legacy cemeteries took on park-like functions, they were not just parks but parks that invited a special kind of strolling and contemplation, something that would not have been available in the normal, sport-heavy parks of Australia “where you can always hear a cricket bat” or kids shouting.
The perpetuity of cemeteries is an issue that complicates maintenance and care. While a cemetery might be said to be growing older or might be officially designated as “legacy” by a cemetery trust when new burials stop or go down to just a handful per year, it is difficult to pinpoint “old age” for a land use that is meant to last into eternity. Office buildings, roadways, and power plants are all given lifespans, after which they are extensively remodeled or torn down. Cemeteries do not have a lifespan and, while care may grow less frequent, they often cannot be “sunset” or completely overhauled. The key to maintaining these “forever infrastructures” is to keep on maintaining them.
Note: The author wishes to thank Professor Ove Sutter and the researchers from the Institute of Cultural Analysis and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Bonn for their feedback on this article.
Samuel Holleran is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where he is examining public participation in the reimagination of urban cemeteries with the DeathTech Research Team. He is also a public artist and writer whose work examines the power and politics imbued in urban greening and memorialisation. Before starting his PhD, he worked as a researcher and educator in the field of civically-engaged design with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) in New York City, the Chair for Architecture & Urban Design at ETH-Zürich, and Ellery Studio in Berlin.
|Australian Bureau of Statistics, “50 Years of Capital City Population Change,” released December 20, 2022. Accessed April 28, 2023. https://www.abs.gov.au/articles/50-years-capital-city-population-change
|Laura Bear, “‘Alternatives’ to Austerity: A Critique of Financialized Infrastructure in India and Beyond,” Anthropology Today 33, no 5 (2017): 3.
|Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no 3 (1999): 377–391.
|Lakhbir Jassal, “Necromobilities: The Multi-Sited Geographies of Death and Disposal in a Mobile World,” Mobilities 10, no. 3 (2015): 486–509, 490.
|Osman Balkan, “Till Death Do Us Depart: Repatriation, Burial, and the Necropolitical Work of Turkish Funeral Funds in Germany,” Muslims in the UK and Europe,ed. Yasir Suileman (Cambridge University Press, 2015): 19–28.
|Susan Leigh Star, “The ethnography of infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3 (1999): 377–391.
|Gine Cherelus, “‘Dead inside’: The Morgue trucks of New York City,” New York Times, 27 May, 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/27/opinion/coronavirus-morgue-trucks-nyc.html
|Hannah Gould and Samuel Holleran, An Essential Service; Experience of Australian Deathcare Workers (Melbourne, Australia: University of Melbourne, 2021), https://deathtech.research.unimelb.edu.au/2021/09/05/an-essential-service/
|Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings,” Mobilities 1, no. 1 (2006): 1-22, https://doi.org/10.1080/17450100500489189
|New South Wales Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, “The 11th Hour: Solving Sydney’s Cemetery Crisis”, August 2020. https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/la/papers/Pages/tabled-paper-details.aspx?pk=79204, 12.
|Philip Bachelor, Sorrow and Solace: The Social World of the Cemetery (London: Routledge, 2004), 41.
|Tony Ibrahim, “Wallacia locals fight against plans for two cemeteries as Sydney runs out of burial space,” ABC Western Sydney, 16 February, 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-17/wallacia-cemetery-blueprint-upsets-local-residents/13158956
|The 11th Hour, 118.