Australia may build catacombs for the dead

Faced with overcrowding and growing demand, a Sydney cemetery is exploring the idea of moving future operations underground.

Paris catacombs
A view within the catacombs of Paris. A cemetery in Australia is considering pursuing a modern take on underground burial to alleviate crowding issues. (Photo: Paris Catacombs)

A popular burial practice of the Old World may soon receive a modern update in Australia.

The Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, a cemetery located outside Sydney, is considering building the country's first catacombs. The move comes in response to both an uptick in the region's population and the encroaching reality that the cemetery has only 15 years of space left for burials.

Unlike the famed catacombs of Paris, where the bones of more than 6 million people are intricately displayed, the Memorial Park would house skeletal remains of individuals in small boxes called ossuaries.

"The upper level is pristine," chief executive Graham Boyd told the Sydney Morning Herald of the plans. "It will be architecturally pleasing with natural light, while the lower levels are moving to a catacomb in a Roman style."

According to Boyd, the lower levels could each provide a resting place for as many as 7,000 people, creating a sustainable model for generations to come.

"The ossuary voids could be used by families again and again in perpetuity, and you can go on until the voids are filled. That could take centuries," Boyd added.

The Douaumont ossuary, which contains the remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers from WWI, was officially opened in 1932. The Douaumont ossuary, which contains the remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers from World War II, was officially opened in 1932. (Photo: Douaumont ossuary)

While a vast majority of Australians elect for cremation of their remains, members of religious faiths with sanctions against the practice still require burial plots. The development of the catacombs would not only reduce pressures associated with population growth and available land, but also help to keep the costs manageable.

Cemetery sustainability is an issue everywhere

Memorial Park isn't the only cemetery in Australia thinking about the future. At the 706-acre Rookwood Cemetery, where more than 1 million bodies are interred, officials are experimenting with new methods to speed up the decomposition process.

As part of a three-year study, Rookwood will bury the corpses of more than 100 pigs (which are anatomically most similar to humans) and expose them to compounds and additives to enhance decomposition. If successful, the practice could open the door to allowing more than one person to be laid to rest in the same shared plot.

"The sustainability of cemeteries everywhere is a major issue right now," George Simpson, chief executive of the Rookwood General Cemeteries Reserve Trust, told the Herald. "This is a real watershed if we can get it right. It would revolutionize the entire industry the world over."


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