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Australia has one of the most urbanised societies in the world – for a country with the sixth largest land base most of the population is heavily concentrated on the eastern seaboard. In our major cities with their two hundred-year-old cemeteries, burial plots are rapidly running out. Urban cemeteries have reclaimed old plots, found new land, or have closed their grounds to burials to manage the shortage.
However, outside the metropolitan areas historic pioneer cemeteries are dotted throughout the landscape, mostly unused and unloved. For those cemeteries that are still in active towns they are caught in a situation where burials are declining as their populations have moved, town size decreased, and cremation is a cheaper and more favoured option for many. For these cemeteries revenue is low or non-existent and there are no paid resources to manage or maintain the grounds. Meaning often community groups and volunteers are left with the task of maintaining the grounds and records.
This situation is a product of our European settlement; explorers and migrants quickly arrived and set out to settle the land. Convict labour was used as the colonies flowed from harbours and cities following roads and rivers to ensure settlers had the essentials at hand. And eventually, Europeans and their descendants made it into more remote areas. Events like the gold rush saw people suddenly flock in their thousands to places like Ballarat and Walhalla where gold was found, everyone looking for their fortune. Regional cities appeared suddenly with little infrastructure and no planning but with these cities cemeteries were necessarily formed.
During this time of settlement, the dead were usually buried quickly and conveniently as there were no established cemeteries nearby. As settlers found their land and small towns and communities were growing new cemeteries developed, often associated with churches. But for families living out of town it was not uncommon for a family property to have a small graveyard. Some of these burial grounds are now lost, but many remain scattered throughout the landscape.
Just as communities were formed they were abandoned, as time progressed along with industrialisation and world wars, the population was changing and gradually at first moving away from rural and remote areas into cities and regional towns. Leaving behind what may have once been flourishing settlements to be abandoned to the progression of an urbanised society.
In recent decades interest in the pioneer's burial grounds has seen programs emerge where mostly volunteers have spent years visiting rural and remote cemeteries and painstakingly recording their location, transcribing their headstones, taking photos and sharing this information online. This has no doubt helped feed the interest in genealogy and helped mark a significant moment in history by recording this information. Particularly when many of these smaller burial grounds are being eroded through lack of maintenance, pests liked rabbits and foxes, wildlife and erosion. Every tombstone offers an insight into the history of that person and their time. The passage of European settlement into new areas, changing attitudes to migrants from other lands, religion and how death was treated are all showcased in our cemeteries.
In today's urbanised society death is a very sanitised business, we are only just starting to see a trend of families wanting to take back control over how they are finally remembered. Regulations still dictate when a person dies their body must be treated in a certain way meaning burial and cremation remain the most viable options.
Australian settlers had a very different experience of death, and their burial grounds still exist in most parts of the country and are an important marker of European history, and what it was like to live during the settlement of our country. Many are no longer financial businesses and are located in rural and remote areas, but thanks to teams of volunteers and interested communities many of these sites are being restored, maintained and their records posted online.
With cemetery space so limited, particularly in urban areas, the layout and design must ensure that burial spaces are optimised. Mostly gone are the huge spectacles of tombstone art in a modern-day cemetery or memorial garden, where everything is neat and ordered, row upon row, plaque on plaque. With the increase in cremation many families choose to keep their loved one's ashes at home or scatter the remains in a favourite place, rather than create a permanent memorial in a cemetery environment. It is not uncommon for ashes to be dispersed through various family members and not have a single final resting place.
I wonder what we will think of our modern cemeteries in the years to come.
Just a few examples of Australian historical cemeteries are below:
Kangaroo Island Cemetery, South Australia
As the third largest island in Australia this cemetery is a great example of the harsh life early settlers had living in remote locations.
Photograph: Sandra from Heading For The Hills
Isle of the Dead, Port Arthur, Tasmania
This cemetery was associated with Port Arthur prison settlement. Convicts were buried in unmarked graves, only soldiers and other workers were given named graves.
Walhalla Cemetery, Victoria
This once thriving gold rush community is now primarily a tourist town. Most burials in the cemetery are pre World War and therefore the cemetery is considered historically significant and is known for ghost sightings.
Photograph: Mark from Wyld Family Travel