By Samuel Holleran

The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly altered the way that urban spaces are viewed. Lockdowns have reconfigured our relationships to our local environments and highlighted the value of public areas for community wellbeing. One domain cut out for greater usage is the cemetery. While cemeteries are often perceived to be strange, ‘spooky’ places to house the remains of our loved ones, they have multi-use potential and can be creatively utilised for light recreation, for teaching local history, and to generate bird and animal habitat in the urban core. My PhD has investigated how some cemeteries in the state of Victoria design and manage their grounds. A CAWRI PhD top-up grant enabled me to spend several days exploring South Australia’s substantially different approach to cemetery management. In this trip I toured cemeteries, met with representatives from the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority, and considered how they have designed and planned cemeteries—not for the dead, but for the living.

Cemeteries are closely associated with the idea of single-use spaces. Yet, internationally there are instances of multi-use. Alternative design strategies are being utilised for the creative renewal of older cemeteries and the planning of new ‘greenfield’ sites that aim to provide amenities for neighbouring communities. In Los Angeles, for example, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery has reinvented itself as a site for outdoor film screenings and receptions. In Berlin, aging cemeteries are now home to urban gardeners who tend vegetable patches located on common non-burial areas. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, administers an annual artist-in-residence programme where emerging creatives can use the cemetery’s nineteenth-century gatehouse as a studio. In Los Angeles and New York, cemeteries have been able to capitalise on people’s interest in local history and a desire to ‘reconnect’ respectively to the mythic past of the Golden Era of Hollywood and the Gilded Age robber barons. While in Berlin, with its more problematic history, programming has focused on the pragmatic needs of local residents. These new programmes have required little capital investment. Rather, what was needed was a significant shift in the mindset of cemetery managers and constituent communities.  

A cycling route cuts through West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide. Photo: Samuel Holleran

South Australia also contains instances of multi-use urban cemeteries, which is somewhat unusual within the Australian context where mono-use suburban and rural cemeteries are the norm. South Australia was of particular interest for my research as it has been a leader in cemetery practise and the management of cemeteries. The Adelaide Cemeteries Authority (ADA) offers interment rights for periods ranging from 50 to 99 years, meaning that ‘in perpetuity’ is not the standard. This makes burials significantly less expensive and offers the possibility of renewing gravesites, relieving some of the space concerns that are troubling other major cities.

In addition to the renewable tenure system, the ADA has worked to incorporate their cemeteries into the urban fabric. West Terrace Cemetery, located in Adelaide’s picturesque parklands, has been promoted as a creative destination for tourism and for locals; it hosts a biannual “Death Over Dinner” event series that pairs frank conversations about mortality and memorialisation with epicurean treats. Moreover, the cemetery is part of the Parklands Trail, providing an important cycling access point for Adelaide’s central business district which fosters community wellbeing. Combining cemeteries with cycling infrastructure supplies protected pathways, but it also means that the cemetery, like the cycle route, is open 24 hours a day. The cycling path is unfenced and allows access into the space. This runs counter to some of the ideas for managing urban environments that focus on securitisation, but the trade-off (additional access for cyclists) is seen as a worthwhile one and in-line with the prioritisation of active transport and recreation put forward in the City of Adelaide’s “Place Shaping Framework”. It’s a first step in recognising cemeteries as nodes in parkland corridors and it also hints at the notion of “preservation through use”, the seemingly simple idea that sites are preserved and cared for by bringing in new user groups.

The headstone of Gool Mahomet(1865-1950), an Afghan Cameleer buried at West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide. Photo: Samuel Holleran

Despite important initiatives such as those in Adelaide, there’s still resistance to these broader uses, even within the altered COVID context. During Melbourne’s lengthy second 2020 COVID lockdown, I launched a small survey along with my colleagues at the DeathTech Research Team to see if the uptick in visitations to local green spaces also increased the number of people jogging, walking their dogs, and taking socially distanced strolls in their local cemeteries. The preliminary results seem to suggest that while some people explored local cemeteries for the first time, there wasn’t a huge increase. This was due to frequently difficult to access outer suburban locations; many of the older city-core cemeteries having locked gates and being located on fast-moving roads; and, for some, a deep-seated aversion towards places perceived as ‘spooky’. Yet, with the ever-greater need for public places, this expanded notion of cemeteries as living spaces is worth embracing, as they can offer much to their local communities and the wider urban fabric. Creating programming in the cemetery helps to build links that ensure future stewardship and interest in the site and aids in connecting a community to its history.

Samuel Holleran is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne. He received a PhD Top-up Scholarship from CAWRI in 2020.

Header image: West Terrace Cemetery is part of the parklands green belt that separates Adelaide’s CBD (left) from a light industrial area and suburban neighbourhoods (right). Photo: Michael Coghlan, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)