“Heritage is ignored”: Growing concerns for Melbourne General Cemetery’s “barren” state

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Cemetery Liz Aird
Carol Saffer

Community members are calling on the state government to provide urgent support to protect Melbourne General Cemetery’s heritage, as the cemetery’s trustee pledges to “invest in planting and amenity”.

Save Our Cemetery (SOC), a community group of inner-city residents, wants to conserve the Melbourne General Cemetery’s heritage.

The group’s president Liz Airdsaid the cemetery itself was in was in disrepair.

“The land is now barren with a lack of flora, except for some original cypress trees and relatively few other bushes and trees, amounting to a tree canopy coverage of eight per cent of the 43-hectare grounds,” Ms Aird said.

SOC wants to highlight the cemetery’s current condition and lobby to fund a master plan to accommodate its needs in the 21st century.

It was the first cemetery in Victoria designed as a public park, with curved pathways, trees and shrubs, gate lodges and rest pavilions.

Melbourne General Cemetery (MGC) is larger than the Royal Botanic Gardens in South Yarra, which at 38 hectares has a tree canopy cover of 52 per cent.

In its recent 2022-23 budget, the City of Melbourne included $1.8 million for the annual tree planting program to deliver 2400 new trees across the municipality.

As the city’s green canopy will be vital in efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, the council plans to increase canopy cover from the current 22 per cent to to 40 per cent by 2040.

The Victorian Department of Health oversees MGC’s administration conducted by the Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (SMCT).

SMCT is a community-based, not-for-profit organisation responsible for nine cemetery and memorial park locations within Victoria. According to the Cemeteries Act 2003, the SMCT is responsible for maintaining the cemetery to “community standards.”

Ms Aird said that MGC’s eight per cent canopy coverage makes a mockery of the grand vision of the original garden cemetery design.

“There appears to be a lack of will or funds to maintain and improve the sad state of the cemetery, especially in its northern area,” Ms Aird said.

She said one of the eight historic rotundas designed to provide shade for visitors, built in 1886, was sold in 2011 for a price of around $155,000.

“Heritage is ignored; they [SMCT] appropriated a public building and repurposed it to house a single grave,” Ms Aird said.

The SMCT-commissioned Melbourne General Cemetery Conservation Management Plan, conducted by heritage and conservation experts Lovell Chen in 2014, states, “The original Victorian garden cemetery concept at this site has been severely compromised. This began when the pressures for locating new burial plots and lack of funding for maintenance saw landscape areas turned over to burials.”

“The long-term management practice of herbicide spraying (especially through the north of the site) may have adversely impacted on some or all of the noted indigenous species.”

Ms Aird said the current failure to plant trees or shrubs and the ongoing use of herbicides would reduce the options open to the cemetery in the future. “Urgent action is needed,” she said.

Other members of the community have long been raising questions about MGC’s condition.

Melbourne Greens MP Ellen Sandell asked then Minister of Health Martin Foley in Parliament in August last year, “will this state government provide funding to improve the Melbourne General Cemetery?”

“This historic place is a little worse for wear … it is largely barren with a lack of tree cover or vegetation. Unfortunately, the body that runs the cemetery [SMCT] say they do not have the funding they would need to do this,” Ms Sandell said.

SMCT’s CEO at the time Jane Grover responded in November 2021.

“In the past three months, we have planted approximately 60 small to medium-sized trees. Unfortunately, large canopy trees cannot be easily, safely or appropriately accommodated at MGC due to the proximity to graves and aging monuments,” Ms Grover said.

Late last year, SMCT entered into an agreement with the Princes Hill Community Centre’s (PHCC) Greening the Cemetery gardening group.

Greening the Cemetery holds volunteer working bees on the fourth Friday of each month from 10am for no more than three hours, intending to beautify the surrounds and graves of the MGC.

One group member said that with the small number of volunteers who weeded and planted in those few hours once a month, they were lucky to “cover the size of my living room”.

SMCT and PHCC operate under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), with both parties agreeing to a specified set of obligations, with PHCC agreeing that the gardening group “will only garden in pre-approved locations, identified and approved by SMCT”.

Another requirement is when the gardening group “is on-site at MGC should any volunteer receive an enquiry from a member of the public, he or she must refer the enquiry to SMCT staff.”

Ms Aird said there was a “particular emphasis on confidentiality”.

“SMCT has to approve any proposed social media or traditional media releases by the PHCC gardening group,” Ms Aird said.

“Save Out Cemetery will operate without such constraint.”

There are several other community groups and individuals who have an interest in the MGC.

The friends of the Melbourne General Cemetery (FOMGC) describes itself on Facebook “as a community group supporting the preservation and development of this beautiful historic cemetery; we are not affiliated with the cemetery trust.”

Its Facebook page primarily promotes and raises public awareness of the cemetery’s issues.

Victorian Greens MP for the seat of Brunswick Tim Read said thousands of people passed by or through the cemetery daily, yet it wasn’t being treated as a precious inner city open space.

“With time, it could become a greener, more attractive destination for walkers and picnickers while still respecting the graves it contains,” he said.

“People who live around here are telling me they want to see an ambitious planting and gardening program with many more trees; many of them would love to volunteer their own time to help.”

“However, there has been conflicting information about the plans for the cemetery, depending on who you speak to.”

 

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

 

Carlton North resident David James said in a letter to the editor of The Sunday Age in August 2021, “[MGC] is now at the end of its life as a working cemetery and is in dire need of leadership and engagement from the community and government to assure its future.”

“What an opportunity for a whole of government approach to develop [it] providing open space for recreation, shade and trees to mitigate climate change effects.”

SOC is proposing a similar approach with its aim to liaise with other community organisations such as the Carlton Community History Group, the National Trust, the City of Melbourne, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, the University of Melbourne and its branch at Burnley, environmental groups, the Heritage Council and local schools.

Inner City News sent a series of questions to SMCT chair Dr Vanda Fortunato regarding the MGC, to which a spokesperson replied, “we are always working to improve the gardens and surroundings at all our properties. SMCT has a plan to invest in planting and amenity at Melbourne General Cemetery that involves community input, and we are in the final stages of planning this project.”

The Department of Health was also contacted for comment.

Three Prime Ministers, Sir Robert Menzies, James Scullin and Sir John Gorton, are buried in MGC.

Other notable interments include significant figures of the 1854 Eureka Stockade Rebellion and ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills.

Well-known pioneers, such as John Pascoe Fawkner and George Evans, and Derrimut, the Indigenous chief of the Bunurong tribe, after who the Melbourne suburb was named, are also interred there.

For more information: [email protected]

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