It’s been a popular trivia question for many years. What is unusual about most of the residents of Sydney postcode 2141? The answer of course is that they are dead, with much of Rookwood being taken up by its vast cemetery or necropolis as it is sometimes described. It’s a bit of dark humour, some might say even morbid, but behind the statistic lies an ever increasing problem – Sydney’s suburban cemeteries are almost full.
With a shortage of grave sites, the cost of an actual burial is now sky high and many are forced to move to regional areas to bury their loved ones. If six feet down is no longer an option, perhaps we might consider what a number of other countries have been doing and many are considering for the future. That’s vertical interment where the dead are housed in multi-floor high-rises like the 14 storey Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos, Brazil, which can currently accommodate up to 25,000 souls. It’s a necropolis in the sky that also features wake rooms, crypts, mausoleums, a chapel and a snack bar on the roof.
Sydney’s traditional cemeteries like Rookwood and Waverley bring mixed reactions, right across the community. Obviously if you have a family member or friend buried within, there is a powerful emotional connection. Others see them as part of our history with walking tours and a sense of discovery in locating the gravestone of somebody famous or notable. On the other hand, the concrete gravestones, crumbling mausoleums and large unkept areas overrun with weeds are an eyesore – hardly a suitable resting place for the dead.
Just over 50% of people who die in Australia each year are cremated and the figure reflects a worldwide trend which shows a slight annual increase. Nevertheless there is still a large segment of the population who for cultural, religious or many other reasons prefer to be buried in the ground.
The local funeral industry have often come under fire for overcharging but my main gripe is the lack of choice, call it novelty if you like, when it comes to choosing a truly unique send off. If you want to get married in 2022, you could opt to do so underwater, kitted out in scuba gear along with a portly Elvis celebrant. It’s time to loosen up and offer those who see death as more of a celebration or a welcome party to the after life.
That’s certainly the case in Ghana, where its celebrated school of fantasy coffin makers have turned the funeral into a highly creative expression of folk art. Artists like Eric Adjetey Anang, Paa Joe, Daniel Mensah and Kudjoe Affutu have produced an astonishing array of coffins in the shape of fish, lions, cameras, sneakers, handbags, baguettes, aeroplanes and cigarette packets – in fact just about anything your imagination conjures up.
The coffins are beautifully crafted and are genuine works of art, lauded and exhibited in galleries throughout Europe and acquired by collectors worldwide. Unfortunately this international artistic recognition has pushed up the price for the local Ghanaian market and a fantasy coffin of your choice can now set you back around $10,000 (US).
We could avoid this kind of expense in Australia by introducing a number of ‘coffin’ rental companies (eg Rent-A-Box), each offering an extensive catalogue of novelty coffins, all at competitive prices. The coffins would be the centre of attention at the actual funeral but never buried or cremated – the deceased could be consigned in an eco friendly cardboard box. A quick spray of disinfectant and a check for loose change and they would be ready for the next rental. It would not solve the shortage of grave sites but would provide a helluva Instagram pic as the mourners gathered around.
Like the ashes of American inventor Fredric J Baur which were buried in a giant Pringles can, Aussies around the country would be dying for a send off in a Ghanaian style Chico Roll, meat pie with sauce, Sherrin football, Ugg boot, six pack of VB, Holden Monaro or head of Phar Lap. With Easter approaching I have already put in an advance order for a chocolate bilby!