Sydney faith groups fight to keep graves 'out of the hands of government bureaucrats'

Head of the Catholic Church in Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, is rallying support to challenge the NSW Government’s decision to take the management of Sydney’s cemetries out of the hands of faith groups and place it under a single government-run trust.

Archbishop Fisher has created an online petition – ‘Save Our Graves‘ – and emailed key Catholic leaders, asking them to sign it. This follows a letter sent to Catholic clergy by the Archbishop, which urges parishioners to appeal to their local MP for the decision to be reversed.

The letter also included a copy of the Archbishop’s article published in The Australian – and also in Catholic Weekly – last Thursday, in which Fisher describes caring for the dead as “a spiritual mission, not a secular mission”.

The contentious decision about management of cemetries was announced on May 25 by Minister for Water, Property and Housing Melinda Pavey. It will lead to the merging of five existing Crown cemetery operators in metropolitan Sydney, into one government entity. According to Pavey, the decision was reached after a statutory review “found a danger of financial collapse” – with cemetery operators discovered to have debts of more than $300 million.

However, according to Archbishop Fisher’s office, it’s a decision that will cost the government half a billion dollars.

“The Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT) believes that taking Sydney’s largest cemeteries out of the hands of religious operators would see savings of $500 million lost over the next 50 years, due to the loss of tax concessions linked to their charitable status,” a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney told Eternity.

“The CMCT believes that the loss of its charitable status as a not-for-profit operator would lead the price of burials to increase by one third, or around $9000 for a burial plot alone.”

The CMCT manages four cemeteries in greater Sydney – Rookwood Catholic Cemetery, Liverpool Cemetery, Kemps Creek Cemetery and North Rocks Catholic Cemetery. But it is not the only faith group affected by the change, with Islamic and Muslim communities also backing the petition.

‘The e-petition is also receiving strong support from the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and the Riverstone Muslim Cemetery Board, representing 19 different Muslim associations in Sydney,” said the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney spokesperson.

“It is a shocking decision.” – Archbishop Anthony Fisher

Archbishop Fisher was openly outraged about the lack of consultation with church and other faith leaders in the announcement of this “sudden decision”, saying in his media article:

“The NSW Premier has repeatedly assured me that faith groups will be part of the solution. In recent weeks, we were invited into a dialogue with her most senior staff to find a solution that would respect the unique role that faith groups have in the provision of burials. We now feel like we have been deceived. Immediately after the Upper Hunter by-election, this decision has been dumped in our laps.”

The Archbishop described the Catholic Church’s 150-year record of cemetry management as “commendable”, adding: “Despite [this] record, we have been told that all faith operators will be dismissed this week. Cemetery management will now be handed over to a costly government bureaucracy, with no sympathy for the mission of caring for the dead and no experience in caring for graves.”

“It is a shocking decision.”

In addition the possible increased cost of burials, Archbishop Fisher expressed concerns about a lack of “reverence and respect” for graves if managed by a government-run trust.

“Some people in government or bureaucracy would like to stop burials altogether and require everyone to be cremated. Some would like to reuse existing graves for additional burials. Some would even be willing to disturb old graves so as to use the land for development,” said the Archbishop in his article.

“These bureaucrats would lack the same sensitivity and understanding of religious customs around death …” – Catholic Archidiocese of Sydney

As the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney spokesperson explained to Eternity: “Showing respect and reverence for the dead is a universal belief across many different faiths. There are distinct religious customs which people of faith follow after death which would not be readily understood by secular bureaucrats if they took over the management of cemeteries.”

“In the Catholic tradition it is, for example, common for family members to gather around the body of the deceased in prayer in the lead up to the funeral. In the Muslim faith, the body of the deceased must by washed with clean, soapy water, then camphor-infused water, then wrapped in a funeral shroud, perfumed with incense, prior to burial. In the Jewish tradition, the body must also be washed by specially trained Jews, following strict procedures, including the reciting of prayers and psalms.

“If cemetery management was moved into the hands of government officials, these bureaucrats would lack the same sensitivity and understanding of religious customs around death and burial which are intrinsic to faith-based cemetery operators.”

Archbishop Fisher also criticised the NSW Government’s decision as a money-grab, saying: “… the NSW government has made absolutely no provision for a single new cemetery in more than a century. They have made absolutely no provision for the perpetual care of existing graves. Now they are grabbing the care funds built up by Catholics and others over the years for the care of their graves and chapels and applying them to other uses.”

Meanwhile, the CMCT (which trades as Catholic Cemeteries and Crematoria) has started legal proceedings against the NSW Government over its decision.