Breathing new life into Melbourne Cemetery

31 Oct 2022

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Thousands of people pass by or through Melbourne General Cemetery every day, but we aren’t treating it as a precious inner-city open space. Much of it is very dry and degraded, with minimal vegetation, and many old graves are in disrepair. It could be much better.

This expansive stretch of land right in the heart of our city is full of historical appeal, it’s the resting place for past prime ministers and many other historic figures, and it should be one of our most iconic attractions.

Many cemeteries in Australia and around the world are maintained as peaceful green havens, and even tourist destinations, where the bereaved and the wider community can pass the time walking, relaxing and picnicking. In fact cemeteries used to be popular picnic destinations, and should be again!

With the right vision and investment, Melbourne General Cemetery could become a green, attractive destination and a sanctuary for local birds and wildlife, while remaining a place to remember those who have passed. And as our climate heats, more trees will help keep it cool and counter the urban heat island effect.

But right now, it’s pretty depressing.

Much of the cemetery is neglected, barren, and needs to be revived.

So why is the cemetery so…dead?

The cemetery is managed by the Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (SMCT), a not-for-profit tasked by the Victorian Government with managing nine cemeteries in our state. Part of the problem is that the trust’s main source of income comes from burying people and associated services. 

While you can still buy new graves at the cemetery, there’s not much land left. With so few spaces left to sell, the trust isn’t bringing in enough revenue to adequately care for the cemetery. Plus virtually every patch of available land in the cemetery is already covered with tombstones so there’s limited opportunity for planting. 

Beyond these and other financial problems, here in Victoria some of our laws have locked the cemetery into a trajectory of decline and prevent opportunities to transform the site from a neglected burial ground to the historical green park it could be. If you’re interested in some of the details, you can read more about it in a recent ABC article here.

My vision: greening the cemetery

The cemetery has less tree cover and greenery than its surrounding suburbs. It only has about 8% canopy cover. In contrast, the City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy sets out a target of increasing canopy cover from 22% to 40% by 2040 and it would be great to see a similar plan for the cemetery. This would reduce the worsening heat island effect, provide habitat for native birds and wildlife, and make the cemetery a nicer place for people to spend time.

I’d also like to see a reimagining of the gardening and maintenance program to end the use of damaging herbicides, and I’d like to see a renewed commitment to planting indigenous trees and shrubs, restoration of the the iron fences, statues, deteriorated gravesites, and existing flora that have been neglected. It would also be great to bring back the historical night tours that used to happen.

There are many ways the community could get involved in revitalising this space for all to enjoy. And I’d like to hear your ideas, too, so please get in touch if you’ve got any! 

Taranaki Cemetery in New Zealand has been transformed into a green garden with the help of some volunteers.

So what are we doing about it?

The cemetery has only recently come into my electorate, thanks to the redistribution of electoral boundaries that takes effect on 1 Nov 2022.

While I’m not expecting many votes to come from the cemetery’s inhabitants, I’m glad to be able to advocate for this important part of our city.

My Greens colleague Ellen Sandell MP, the member for Melbourne, started pushing to improve the cemetery when it was in her electorate. Ellen worked with the federal member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, to write letters to the SMCT, raise the issue in Parliament, promote a community petition, meet with cemetery volunteers, and write to the Parliamentary Secretary for Health (in an interesting relic of days gone past, Victorian cemeteries still fall under the remit of the Department of Health).

Since Ellen passed the baton to me, I have built on this work by requesting meetings with the SMCT to understand and find ways to support their vision for the cemetery, I’ve met with the new Parliamentary Secretary for Health, and with the community, Yarra and Melbourne City Councillors, and a local cemetery expert and lecturer to better understand the issues. I’ve written letters to the Parliamentary Secretary for Health, SMCT, and Auditor-General. I was also happy to give an interview to Inner City News for their excellent August article on the cemetery. 

It’s good to see these efforts may have led to some progress – I was pleased with the $1.5 million in the most recent state budget to improve soil, and plant more trees and shrubs on the eastern third of the cemetery. I understand this is a pilot program, with an aim to expand. 

But people who live around here are telling me they want to see a much more ambitious vision for the cemetery, and many of them would love to volunteer their own time to help it come to life. 

The new funding for the cemetery is a welcome start, but more government support will be required to properly revitalise the site. I’m committed to working with the SMCT, government, and the community to build a better future for our cemetery, so we can enjoy a beautiful green space while remembering the past.

Let’s breathe new life into Melbourne General Cemetery.

Let’s make Melbourne General Cemetery the best it can be: a lush local walking spot, an iconic place to commemorate those who have come before us, and a peaceful, green space to visit.

Meaningful community consultation, transparency, an ambitious vision and government support will be key, and I’ll be following up with relevant stakeholders to make sure this happens.

If you’d like to keep up to date with local efforts to green the Melbourne General Cemetery, please add your name to my campaign here.

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