Death by pink official form
“Hey Mon, can you give me the two-minute version of the issue with the cemeteries?”
If I had a dollar for every time I was asked that question over the weekend, I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I could buy a couple of coffees with the money I would have made.
While we are usually at least broadly aware of the battles on matters like marriage and family, respect for human life and religious freedom, it seems that the fight over burial grounds came out of nowhere.
It didn’t really. Conversations about cemetery management have been occurring for years but, as you would have read in the Archbishop’s article in this week’s edition of the Catholic Weekly, we had been lead to believe that the Church would continue to play a role in the management of cemeteries; a role it has performed faithfully and respectfully for more than 150 years, not only for Catholics, but for those of other faiths who share our belief in the importance of respect for the dead.
Last week, the Government decided that this would not be the case, and the Catholic Church, along with all existing providers, would be booted out from the operation of cemeteries and replaced with a single, Government-controlled entity named OneCrown.
Why? What happened? Well, here is the two-minute version that I managed to master over the weekend.
Prior to this decision, there were five cemetery operators in NSW. Four of them weren’t doing well financially, with the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT) the only one not running at a loss.
A statutory review of cemeteries identified some key issues that need to be addressed immediately: the lack of burial space in Sydney (our cemeteries will run out of space for “new” graves within about a decade), the increasing cost of burials, and the need to ensure funds are available for the upkeep of existing graves.
The CMCT has already identified appropriate sites for new cemeteries at Varroville and Wallacia, which would – combined – solve the burial space issue for another 100 years.
It also has managed to keep burial costs affordable, while accumulating sufficient funds to maintain gravesites into the future.
These solutions, presented to Government and backed by other faith communities, wouldn’t have cost the State government anything. All they needed to do was let CMCT keep doing its thing.
The Government didn’t need to push them out, and it certainly didn’t need to create its own expensive bureaucracy to take the place of a religious operator.
So, why do it? Why go to the effort and expense of excluding religious operators unless the act of moving on religious operators itself has meaning.
That’s one reason for everyone to be a little nervous. The other reason to be nervous is because there are, of course, other ways to “free up” burial space without needing to develop new cemeteries.
The simplest way is pricing. A secular operator could price perpetual graves at a rate that puts them out of reach of most people, steering them instead towards cremation or renewable leasing of graves.
Renewable leasing involves the granting of a grave for a 25-year lease, renewable up to 99 years in total, if you (or your grandchildren and great-grandchildren) are willing and capable of paying the cost of renewing the lease.
Even if they are, at the end of a maximum 99-year lease, old graves could be reused by digging existing ones deeper and burying more people in the same plot, or by grinding down bones and placing them in an ossuary, to be reburied either in the same place or somewhere else. These processes are frequently used in countries without the vast lands of Australia, including Italy, and can be done in accordance with Catholic teaching for respect for the dead.
It’s also possible, if rarely used, here in NSW, with a requirement in current legislation that religious beliefs need to be respected in any cemetery ‘renewal.’ But even though it’s possible, it’s not necessary here, given the size of this great country, which makes the Government’s decision even more perplexing.
Plus, does anyone really feel comfortable putting such spiritually sensitive matters in the hands of religiously-illiterate secular bureaucrats now, let-alone into the future? Do we really trust that the laws that require respect for religious beliefs to be maintained in the future, particularly when we see how hostile to faith and people of faith many of our laws and lawmakers have been? Do we think that our Government can and do better?
Dear Anh. A very interesting and timely article. May I contribute the following as a 20-year celebrant (religious and civil). We’ve been observing the statistics since Covid began well over a year ago; these show that the majority of folk now arrange for the deceased to go straight to the crematorium, bypassing the church because of social distancing, and the cost saving (another loss of income for the parishes). Most church’s don’t offer streaming of the service, that is very popular now when so many can’t attend. It’s essentially a one-stop-shop – the funeral company arranges everything including the collection of the body from where-ever, mortuary services, creation and printing of the order of service, a particular celebrant of their choice who harmonizes with the family, the flower arrangements, the tribute for publication, even the catered refreshments at the end of the usually 30-minute service; quite often the attendees say farewell at the chapel, and the body proceeds to the crem.
The larger funeral directors (corporations) have spent squillions refurbishing their chapels in Sydney, Gold Coast, Melbourne, Perth and Canberra etc. to take advantage of this. This is a business for these big companies and they see the churches as competition. The younger secular population is generally ignorant of a requiem Mass, and ask simply for a Scripture reading and the Lord’s prayer at the chapel. Yes, we can become emotional and pine for ‘the old days’ but perhaps the Church should consider these facts. You can see why grave-sites are being environmentally questioned throughout the world (several articles in the UK Tablet relate to this throughout Europe), when most simply wish to sprinkle the ashes of their loved one to the wind, and place a perpetual plaque in a meaningful location.
I feel, as a practicing Catholic that I need to say all this. Let’s adapt, or the Church will become even more irrelevant.
I hope the Bishops read this.
PS I’m happy for constructive responses ….