Across the country from capital cities to tiny country towns, somebody has to manage the business of accommodating the dead.
In Victoria, cemetery trusts are the appointed bodies for the administration of our burial grounds. There are around 400 trusts in Victoria, managing every aspect of a cemetery’s functioning, from internment to memorial construction to general maintenance. Cemeteries range in size from the huge necropoles of Melbourne General, Fawkner and Springvale to small rural allotments of a few acres.
There are two classes of trust, A and B. There just five A-class trusts: Metropolitan General, Southern Metropolitan, Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat. The Ballarat General Cemeteries Trust, known as Ballarat Cemeteries, is responsible for both Ballarat New and Ballarat Old cemeteries.
CEO Annie de Jong says the role of an A-class trust involves giving advice to B-class trusts, assisting them with the many tasks and requirements they can find difficult.
It was an oak coffin, and contained the (apparently quite well-preserved) body of a local doctor who had died in the 1920s.
For many of the smaller country cemeteries, maintaining the numbers to keep the trust viable is increasingly a concern. Many have ageing members, and the effort involved in maintenance can be overwhelming. Aside from the constant need for mowing, the cleaning up of dead flowers and odd jobs like painting, there are also safety and health issues to be addressed.
Most trusts have now banned the use of glass containers on graves for flowers. The use of immortelles, dried flower arrangements often housed in a glass cloche, is being discouraged and many have been removed.
The more serious issue of gravestone and memorial collapse is also a burden on trust members. As graves age and subside, poor underpinning can lead to headstones and obelisks toppling, a serious risk when a large memorial can weigh hundreds of kilos.
Technically the trust is not responsible for the maintenance of a grave; it is the family of those interred who must repair any damage or danger. But obviously a majority of older graves are left unvisited as families and individuals move or die themselves, and the work of repairing or removing a memorial that poses a danger falls back to the trust, who must engage a memorial mason to assess what is needed.
The day-to-day work of the trust involves approaches for internment which can cost anything from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. The opening of a grave requires the trust to refer to its burial records to ensure the correct plot is assigned and the grave is either empty, or in the case of multiple burials, the right family.
This can be a problem if the record is inexact. When preparing a grave at Amherst Cemetery near Talbot recently, trust secretary Alan Knight said they were surprised to discover a coffin in a plot supposed to be empty.
It was an oak coffin, containing the body of a local doctor who had died in the 1920s. While the clerical error was rectified, there are very strict rules about the opening of previously used graves and exhumations to prevent unauthorised burials and the improper removal of remains.
The more serious issue of gravestone and memorial collapse is also a burden on trust members.
In the case of an exhumation at the Majorca cemetery (disclosure: the author is a member of the Majorca cemetery trust) in recent years, there was a requirement for not only trust members and Department of Health staff to be present; a police officer also attended. The body was removed to be reinterred at a different cemetery with relatives. The procedure also required to help of a funeral director. Remains need to be secured in an approved receptacle before they can be taken from a cemetery.
In small rural cemeteries there may be just one or two internment in a years. Individuals doing family history research often contact cemetery trusts, getting assistance with finding a grave or placing a marker on a plot.
Every cemetery has hundreds of narratives, stories of lives of families and people who lived and died alone. A cast iron grave marker at Majorca is just one: it lists the six names of children from one family. All died within a year of each other, likely from fevers and illness. None reached 10 years of age.
Annie De Jong encourages anyone with an interest to approach their local trust.
Correction: In a previous version of this story, it could be inferred that Mr Alan Knight opened the coffin of the doctor mentioned. This is not he case, and was not the intention of the author.