Reflecting on seven years working with The Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, I feel a sense of privilege that I am contributing to the end-of-life experience that affects us all.
(top image: Preston Cemetery, Melbourne. Source GMCT)
Taking those experiences as opportunities for designing our cemeteries as places to be, rather than spaces to fill, is more important now than ever before.
As a landscape architect, there are many courses and roads to journey and explore. The choice seems infinite, and cemeteries have their own rabbit holes for investigations, opportunities, and ideas. Think garden, forest and path, think infrastructure, pavement and drainage, think sense, care and compassion, think culture, community and engagement, think wildlife, water and habitat, think comfort, warmth and sanctuary. The challenge becomes how these ideas are considered, mixed and blended, to produce a balanced, functional and beautiful place. A little bit of “Memphis Soul Stew” as it were, but with more account.
It becomes immediately apparent, upon answering the question of what you do for a living, (and it is what you do for the living) that few people understand the sense of purpose in cemeteries and the wide gamut of landscape and design involved. The sense of fascination, possibility and aspiration predominates, and the evolution of cemeteries and how you contribute to that reflects the big picture of death and the big picture of nature.
For example, the new greenfield site at Harkness, which has undergone a rigorous master planning phase, is founded on the conversations, explanations, opinions, and visions described, constructed and refined over a long time, exemplified through draft iterations and direction, of what cemetery spaces and places can be. That an organization like GMCT is prepared to take that on is testament to both the senior leadership and quality and commitment of its staff. The site at Harkness is about to embark on the design of Stage 1 and this means that when construction starts, a brand-new cemetery exemplar is born.
Other GMCT cemeteries are well known, and all are in various states of lifecycle, from active to barely so. From the eastern region, represented by Lilydale Memorial Park, Emerald and Healseville, across the north to historic Fawkner and Northern Memorial Parks, across to the west, focused on Altona, Williamstown and Keilor, and stretching to Werribee. 21 sites and over 600 hectares spread across Melbourne’s northern metropolis, inhabiting the lands of our traditional owners.The variety of sites represents a suite of diverse landscape typologies, multi-cultural and socio-economic enclaves and clusters all requiring individual and unique considerations, applications, and treatments. As we develop our view of cemeteries as places, where each site can contribute to their respective local communities and ecologies, we approach the design of our open space network to enable access to the benefits of nature to improve health and wellbeing, supporting the increase in biodiversity by emphasizing the beauty and function of plants, animals and habitat and investigating how we can offer alternative options for interment and memorialization that support this vision. A multi-layered job, but one that I have found to be a constantly intriguing challenge.
Over the last seven years, the paradigm shift of cemeteries has developed from a space to bury bodies to a place for the living to enjoy. The engagement of our diverse communities and embedding our indigenous culture into our psyche provides us with a unique opportunity to identify a true Australian culture, as cemeteries are all about the land; rich, fertile and diverse places to advance these conversations.
The opportunity to advocate is well supported by GMCT. The benefits are obvious as we have so many allied stakeholders who share the vision for creating better cities, better communities and better lives. Developing relationships with our extended families in state government (Melbourne Water, Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action, and Health of course), has lifted the relevance and importance of cemeteries, which advances with each new project. Working directly with local councils, the Office of the Victorian Government Architect and a raft of creative and astute design consultants has been mutually beneficial to tackling the myriad issues and details. Seeking alternate views and opinions through the contest of ideas and effectively designing and proposing the tangible outcomes, is actively putting theory into action, and gauging its success. The World Urban Parks organization for example, recognizes the value of cemeteries as green, open spaces in this case. As Chair of its Cemeteries Committee, I work with other cemetery organizations around the world to better understand how we can collectively tackle similar issues.
The challenge ahead is to embed the vision, the frameworks, strategies, systems and processes and consolidate this “blueprint for living”; continue to consult and engage with our traditional owners and diverse communities to question and understand how we can do things better; to maintain the camaraderie and sense of purpose.
Landscape and design is now gaining more traction in the development of cemeteries. GMCT is recognized by having its own design team of landscape architects that work within the Future Built Environment ecosystem. That we in FBE are all pulling in the same direction, in no small part due to the improvement in design literacy across the organisation, is also due to the genuine passion we have to generate, shape and mold ideas about future cemeteries. These conversations and the structures and processes that support developing this approach are becoming significant contributions to the evolution of our wider profession.
These quiet, but important landscapes have been described as the forgotten spaces. Once upon a time, cemeteries were also places of recreation and escape, but now they are vital places to both inter and memorialize. Underpinned by a deep sense of histories, future cemeteries will able to provide healthy, green and sustainable places so that we can confront death and grief with a sense of security and acceptance, delivered with care and compassion.
The future starts now.
By Hamish Coates
Hamish is a highly experienced, registered landscape architect with a career spanning over 30 years. Hamish is employed with The Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, where he leads and manages a team of landscape architects responsible for all facets of designing and developing the built environment of the Trust’s 21 cemeteries across metropolitan Melbourne. Hamish’s team works to improve the health and wellbeing of all communities by designing access to nature and un-locking the park-like attributes of cemeteries, to support their primary purpose to deliver beautiful places for end-of-life experiences.