Plans to introduce shorter-term leases of 25 years on graves in NSW with the option of renewing for a maximum of 99 years – or buying the rights to a burial site forever – could face further delays as they come under fresh scrutiny.
The proposals could create two classes of citizens in death, claims Labor, while the government argues they will provide more choice, certainty and free up much-needed burial space.
Sources said Labor seemed to catch the government off guard when it successfully referred proposed regulations for renewable tenure and interment rights in cemeteries to an Upper House committee for review.
Jason Masters, the administrator of Rookwood General Cemeteries Trust, said he was “surprised” by the “high level” review given the legislation had been passed for five years.
But the section of the act containing the controversial proposals for renewable tenure was in limbo for four years until they were proclaimed in the middle of last year.
The shadow minister for primary industries Mick Veitch proposed the review, saying Labor was concerned renewable tenure was inequitable. It could create “two classes of burials, where those who can afford it are looked after in perpetuity, while those struggling to pay could only rent out their final resting place.”
The proposal to allow graves to be re-used is one of a range of reforms to address NSW’s dire shortage of burial space and improve the management of Crown cemeteries.
Other Australian states and most countries across the world have renewable tenure. NSW is unusual because most cemeteries have perpetual tenure except for Kemp Creek natural burial site and Waverley, which offer renewable tenure.
Even without renewable tenure, government modelling showed Sydney area cemeteries would be full by 2051 unless further action was taken, according to the Metropolitan Sydney Cemetery Capacity Report.
The Minister for Lands Paul Toole stressed renewable interment was a choice: it was neither compulsory nor retrospective.
“This voluntary option for future burials would provide a 25-year interment right, renewable for up to 99 years. Conventional practices such as perpetual interment and cremation will continue to be available,” he said.
Mr Toole said the government respected the beliefs of all religious and cultural groups and was committed to ensuring equal access to interment services for all.
“This is a sensitive issue that must be considered with respect and dignity,” he said.
The Cemeteries and Crematoria Act 2013 included a new interment rights system for all cemetery operators in NSW. But the regulation (which is the subject of the Upper House committee review) provided further direction for cemetery operators if they chose to offer renewable interment.
The legislation also includes an investigation by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal to compare cost and pricing of burials and cremation services, and look at the cost of ongoing care of interment sites and cemeteries.
Research released last year found consumers were confused and mostly negative about the changes, with many fearing burial costs would rise.
“Most assumed that people were buried forever – so 25 years for burials was considered too short a period of time, and some felt that it was ‘disrespectful’ to the person deceased (and to their family) to move the remains after this period of time,” found the study by Woolcott Research for Cemeteries and Crematoria NSW.
After researchers explained what was planned, they found many participants expected “the remains to stay in that location forever”.