Lessons learned on a journey Down Under

Date Published: 
June, 2006
Original Author: 
Jeff Sterba
Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Omaha, Nebraska
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, June 2006

During the 2005 ICFA Convention in Las Vegas, I hit a different kind of jackpot, winning a guided tour of the major cemeteries in Australia. Of the hundreds of attendees, I was blessed to have my name drawn by Anne and John Field of Axiom Business Systems for this extraordinary opportunity to visit the premier properties in their homeland.

The best time for me to take time off from my job as general manager is winter. On January 17, 2006, I left my family—two children and an understanding wife—in snowy Omaha and headed for Australia and sunny, summer weather.

After enduring the l4-hour flight from Los Angeles, I quickly adjusted to the time change and started on what I would describe as a student exchange program for an industry executive. Before embarking on the three-city, four-cemetery tour, my hosts, the Fields, gave me a chance to unwind and stretch my legs after the hours of being confined to a standard airline seat by visiting the famed Opera house and bay bridge at The Rocks at Sydney's harbor.

Macquarie Park Cemetery

Sightseeing over, we began our tour in Sydney at Macquarie Park Cemetery and
Crematorium, named after the first governor of the state of New Wales. Before leaving the United States, I had pulled up the cemetery's Web site, and immediately knew I had a lot to learn from these professionals. Their Web site incorporated all the ideas I had been envisioning for our own site.

Macquarie Park's Web site includes the park's history, contact information, site maps, burial locator, virtual tours, past newsletters, online brochures, funeral catering details and fee listings. What the Web site doesn't mention is the exciting monumental change—excuse the pun—and activity occurring within the park's boundaries.

While Macquarie's mission since its first burial in 1922 has been to celebrate and honor the lives of those gone before, the park has been on top of the trend toward cremation. Macquarie has opened three integrated chapels connected to a state-of-the art crematorium, capturing 20 percent of the market in 18 short months.

It was obvious they accomplished this by going to great lengths to address every detail involved in serving customers' needs. The families visiting Macquarie Park cannot help but have a superior experience without necessarily knowing why. Some of the answers lie with subtleties such as the flower theme carried throughout each facility. The names of the chapels (Magnolia, Palm and Camelia) are reflected in the flower mural on the one-way glass of the family viewing room and the LCD screens discreetly mounted both inside and outside the chapel to accommodate overflow attendance.

During my tour, both adjacent condolence lounges were filled with family members and friends who had stayed for receptions catered onsite following committal services. This was all going on while a band played the tango in one room, cremations were being conducted in one of three crematoriums hidden in the back of the complex and, outside, construction workers and cement trucks were busy pouring the foundation for two more reception halls.

Cemetery officials originally estimated the crematorium would serve 500 families during its first year. The actual number was 1,000, and the number of families served continues to grow. The cemetery built the chapels and crematorium not only to add an immediate revenue stream but also to generate funds for the perpetual care of this city cemetery long after it has reached capacity for interments.

The grounds are laid out in sections, including ones specifically for many different faiths (Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, Roman Catholic, Salvation Army, Jewish) or ethnic groups (Chinese, Armenian). All rows are established toe to toe to save valuable inches.

It surprised me to see that all memorials, both flat and upright, are placed on a "beam." The beam is a ribbon of concrete reinforced with rebar and scored to delineate the width of each space. Speaking again of attention to detail: They even sprinkle an oxide powder over the top of the concrete during finishing to create a patina color to blend in with the lawn.

For flat marker sections, the beam is peaked, sloping down toward each grave. After an interment occurs, a bronze plaque is affixed to the concrete, and plastic vases can be purchased and glued on either side of the plaque. For monument areas, the concrete was flat for the base and the stones were placed back to back, facing their respective graves.

The beams are all about efficiency. They are put in place when the section is first developed to protect the memorials and provide efficiencies. Trimming time is significantly reduced, since there are no individual markers to trim around—just the beams. With graves arranged toe to toe, large mowers can effectively be guided down one beam and back along a facing beam.

In developing one of the newest Macquarie sections, managers faced the challenges presented by being next to a fence and underneath a power grid. These barriers were overcome with a combination of art and inspiration.

Starting at one end of the rectangular section, you stand in the middle of multiple circles of cremation space bordered with plantings, with a path leading to the other end of the section. In the middle of the first circle is a plaque describing how you will embark on a journey that follows Jesus' final hours, concluding at the other end of the section.

The path is lined with one-of-a-kind sculptures depicting each Station of the Cross, accompanied by a bronze marker narrating the scene. This path does not end with Jesus on the cross as do many. On the ground beyond the crucifixion scene lies a broken cross, sending a powerful message to any Christian visitor.

Everything about the cemetery is branded, from the six-passenger golf carts to the nametags each administrator wears. By the way, the golf carts were introduced after Macquarie had to enlarge the parking lot to accommodate the crowds it was drawing. Cemetery officials got the golf carts to provide relief for visitors who would find the longer distances too great to walk.

Operations personnel all wear lightweight, short-sleeved polo shirts made of a neon green material similar to that worn by cyclists or other athletes that provide protection from the sun while being "breathable" in the summer heat. Everyone, including funeral directors and clergy, wears brimmed hats that circle the entire head to protect them from the sun.

Macquarie also provides visitors with a state-of-the-art touch-screen location finder. Almost a piece of art itself, the stainless steel kiosk provides not only a screen with maps, but also a second screen that shows picturesque cemetery scenes. CEO Ross Davis and his staff are driving innovation and inspiration for the families they serve.

On to Adelaide
Leaving Macquarie Park, we were off to the airport on our way to Adelaide.  The city, another coastal community with a population of over 1 million, was the first to be settled by free persons. (Other Australian capital cities started as English penal colonies.) As in Palm Springs in the United States, the temperature in Adelaide is often 100 degrees or more with little humidity, and this was the case during my stay.

The valley is bordered by hills of vineyards such as Rosemont, Chapel Hill and d' Arenberg. Personal inspection of these establishments was required, followed by a walk along the seawall dotted with Norwegian pines originally planted to supply timber for sailing masts.

Sunday started with Mass at Adelaide's St. Francis Xavier Catholic Cathedral, celebrated by Archbishop Philip Wilson. We then set off east to Handorf and toured the home and gallery of Australia's premier artist, Sir Hans Heysen. The wonderful day concluded with conversation and dinner at the ranch of Kevin Crowden, retired CEO of Enfield Memorial Park and past president of the Australian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association.

Enfield Memorial Park
Early Monday, it was back to work, with an all-day tour of Enfield Memorial Park, which performs 1,000 body burials and 1,200 cremations annually. We first passed a touch-screen directory for burial and memorial site locations. This was followed by meticulously manicured rose gardens where the individual roses were incorporated on either side of a wedge of granite as part of the memorial package. The wedges either were engraved or held bronze.

Enfield CEO Eric Heapy, along with Manager of Business Development Darren Leuders and Operations Manager Mark Ruthven, led the morning tour through all the gardens and phase one of their newly constructed mausoleum.

Three areas take your breath away. First is the Campbell Memorial Garden, which is bisected by a linear path of water leading up to a stone cremation wall. On either side of the running water are cremation memorials. On the other side of the wall, the water continues into a pond over which stands a fully enclosed glass gazebo.

The stunning aspect is the 100+ birch trees surrounding the gazebo. Cremation memorials circle the base of each birch. The feeling created is similar to the serenity you feel when walking through the birch forests of the Colorado Rockies. Pictures cannot convey the environment these cemeterians have brought to life.

Next came the Western Rose Garden, which is laid out in a semicircle. The zoysia grass is green and lush, providing a perfect background to accentuate the white, red and pink rose bushes separating each wedge marker identifying full body burial graves. While private plantings are not allowed, visitors can use shared plastic vases supplied by the cemetery to leave fresh flowers. The care of this area is reminiscent of the gardens of Hampton Court in England or the Palace of Versailles in France.

Finally, the Pavilion Garden was the most impressive for its simple brilliance and the fact that it could easily be adopted by any other cemetery wanting to incorporate trees. This section of 830 burial spaces feels like a secluded back yard due to the stone wall border. Leaving no space unused, the walls held memorial plates to identify the deceased in lawn crypts below. On either side of each wall memorial, the mason incorporated a planting urn that held a variety of greenery.

Within the confines of the walls, the area was laid out like rows of pinwheels, each with eight graves surrounding a tree. Twelve specially formed concrete pieces placed in the shape of a square lay approximately four feet from the base of the tree to hold bronze memorial plates. The formed concrete was processed to emulate sandstone.

I felt like I was walking, on a crisp fall day, through one of the many family owned apple orchards that dot the two lane road leading from Omaha to Nebraska City. I could not stop thinking how the families of the deceased are comforted here, as one could only conjure up sweet recollections in this setting.

The section tapered to an open-air gazebo with a granite pedestal, providing a quiet location for committals. At that point, I knew this trip was giving me a gift of ideas that I could share with colleagues and potentially develop for my own Catholic families in Omaha.

Centennial Park
The journey continued the next day with a tour of Centennial Park, also in Adelaide. Our host and tour guide was CEO Bryan Elliott. This cemetery planning showed the same elegance and detail as Macquarie and Enfield. Centennial is so named because it was opened in 1936, 100 years after the establishment of South Australia. The staff of 55 includes 18 gardeners, six crematorium staff, a digging crew of five, five in facilities maintenance and 16 in sales and administration.

Like the other two, Centennial is primarily a lawn beam cemetery. Each grave has a license term of 50 years that can be perpetually renewed by the family. If the family does not renew the license, the cemetery has the right to reuse the space. (See "Reclaiming burial space after the 50-year license expires" for details) One burial space can hold up to three people at three depths. The minimum depth of burial is one meter. 

To inter multiple people, you must wait a minimum of three years before you can "lift and deepen." This process involves disinterring the remains of the person in depth one or two (vaults are not used), digging to level two or three and re-interring the skeletal remains. I later found out that this practice is not universal to all of Australia. Each state or municipality has its own legislation allowing or prohibiting the practice.

The cemetery currently holds 120,000 burials, with 65,000 active licenses averaging two deceased per space.

Centennial Park opened its first crematorium in 1953 and added a complex of three chapels, gathering areas and lounges in 1986. As a side note, the first crematorium in the Southern Hemisphere was operating in 1903 in West Terrace Cemetery, only a few miles away from Centennial Park.

The largest chapel seats over 250 and can hold 1,000. Two local city governments oversee the park, which serves various denominations segmented by areas and also has two sections for veterans. Each veterans' section is marked by a large cross-monument, one called the Cross of Sacrifice, for those who died in battle, and the other the Cross of Remembrance, for those who served.

Centennial performs 1,000 burials and 3,000 cremations each year. Of those cremated, 40 percent are then interred in Centennial Park. This activity generates approximately $6.5 million in revenue, with net income after depreciation in excess of $850,000.

In the past, cremations were always handled by cemeteries, but recently funeral homes and other establishments have started offering crematory services, creating competition for the cemeteries. Therefore, all the cemeteries talked in terms of burials, cremations and memorials:
• Burials: the number of body interments in the cemetery.
• Cremations: the number of deceased handled by the cemetery's retorts.
• Memorials: the number of cremated remains interred in the cemetery.

Cemeteries now have a challenge in educating families about inurnment options. Centennial's approach is to create an area called Contemplation Court and Garden Walk, a series of niche walls bordering three fountain ponds, all covered by shade sails. The wall serves as a holding area for cremated remains when a decision has not yet been made on their final disposition.

Contemplation Court gives the family an opportunity to visit the deceased and become accustomed to the idea of having their loved one at the cemetery. The hope is that the family will be inspired to choose some form of memorialization at Centennial. 

Centennial Park's approach to marketing and selling focuses on branding, educating and providing customer service. Using television, radio and print media, they have spent $300,000 to bring their message to families.

When you enter the administration building, glossy pictorials of each section, along with the respective memorial samples that can be placed in that particular location, line the length of the room. In addition, a book titled "At The End Of The Road," by Robert Nicol, which tells the history of both Adelaide and Centennial cemeteries, is for sale.

Like Enfield, Centennial provides a burial location touch screen located outside the office; each month, it receives 1,200 inquiries from visitors and prints 900 maps for families needing directions.

With their first 50-year license having expired in 1988, they took out a 20-page ad costing $100,000 in October 2002 listing 8,000 names needing a license extension. They received over 10,000 inquiries in the following week.

Though the response was overwhelming, the residual effect was a massive educational exercise for the community that created ongoing traffic for license renewals and an awareness of what Centennial Park has to offer families for preserving memories.

The Necropolis
The next stop was The Necropolis in Melbourne, a two-hour flight from Adelaide. The cemetery entrance is flanked by massive gray granite piers, rising two stories high and displaying the cemetery's name. The grandeur of the gate was a sign of what lay beyond.

CEO Russ Allison personally took time out of his busy day to provide an overview and tour of the cemetery, which covers 422 acres. Though The Necropolis has been its name for over 100 years, the name Springvale Cemetery and Botanical Gardens was adopted in January to better describe the property.

As at Centennial Park, water features in the form of ponds, fountains and streams are heavily incorporated into the sections. These water features are positioned and used like the main attractions and rides found in a Disney theme park. That is, they attract people and effectively move and disperse traffic out and into the property.

While the use of so much water seems contrary to Australia's preservation philosophy, Springvale is no exception to the conservation rule. The cemetery has two retention and sediment lakes supplied by rainwater runoff from the adjoining interstate roadway and Springvale's parking areas.

Now that I was on the final cemetery tour of my trip, I thought about how each cemetery drew ideas from the others for the betterment of their respective cemeteries and the service they provide families.

Branding and consistency were key elements at all of them. At Springvale, this consistency was apparent from the uniforms of administrative and operational staff to the directional sign at each cross roads. Branding was evident from their name at the front gate down to the print on the gift-wrap and bag I was presented.

Springvale's rose garden sections hold over 27,000 individual roses as part of the memorialization package offered to families. To provide for this type of memorialization, the cemetery has set aside an area to propagate their own plants. Unlike the sprawling fields of many cemeteries in the United States—including the Catholic Cemeteries in Omaha—The Necropolis and others have created "areas" rather than "sections." They have turned their flat plains into secluded environments through extensive use of vegetation and berms created with excess soil from burials.

The result is that you get the sense of moving from one exquisitely themed and decorated room to another, each creating a welcoming space for those seeking retreat and reflection. For example, you can move from the regimented Headstone Lawn Area, with beamed rows of predetermined monuments, to the free-flowing Monumental Lawn Graves Area, giving the patron the opportunity to place any style or size monument or plaque amongst landscaped garden beds or established trees.

Springvale provides traditional burial and inurnment options along with upscale alternatives that are manageable, sellable and aesthetically pleasing, and that enhance the entire cemetery.

The continued journey
After my lucky win in Vegas, more than one person told me, "You're going to have a once-in-a-lifetime trip that will give you experiences few other cemeterians get." Now that I've enjoyed the opportunity John and Anne Field gave me to visit their homeland and see firsthand the options their country's cemeteries provide, I view it as a trip and learning experience on which I will build many more.

Though I understand travel to other countries is difficult in terms of time and money, exposure to other cultures and different ways of looking at serving families who have lost loved ones is invaluable. I look forward to the ICFA and the Catholic Cemetery Conference inviting speakers and printing articles from people representing different cultures and countries who can spur innovation or at least discussion.

Thank you, John and Anne, for giving me this opportunity. I will remember the hospitality of your family, your country's cemeterians and your countrymen as I continue my journey at the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Omaha and the ministry of performing the corporeal work of mercy in burying the dead.

Reclaiming burial space after the 50-year license expires

The policy for the reuse of graves differs from cemetery to cemetery. At Centennial Park, we exhaust all other avenues before re-use. Our policy is to make several efforts to contact the license holder:

1. We try to contact the license holder six months prior to the expiry of the license. We have about a 30 percent success rate in contacting the license holder and ascertaining their wishes.

2. If that effort is not successful, we put a sticker on the memorial (either headstone or memorial plaque) once the license does expire. The sticker states, ''The license for this position is due for renewal; please contact the administration office." This stays in place for at least 12 months, covering all anniversaries, etc., when people might visit the grave. We do get some response from the stickers.

3. Every three years, we place an advert in the state paper (the Advertiser) on a Saturday detailing the names and positions of deceased occupying a position where the license has expired. Our next advert will appear in August and cover calendar years 2001, 2002 and 2003. As you can see, the time since expiry is a minimum of two years to a maximum of five years.

If our campaign results in no response, the position is deemed to revert to Centennial Park Burial Authority control. At this point, we digitally photograph the monument in situ. The photographs are reviewed by our heritage committee for significance of material used, design, etc.

If the heritage committee members deem the monument worthy of retention, the site and monument are listed internally and are not reused but rather left as they are. The heritage committee is composed of members of the Monumental Masons Association, a local heritage advisor, at least one cemetery board member as well as a cemetery management representative.

If the monument is not heritage listed, it can be removed, stored for a period of time (three months minimum) and, if not claimed, destroyed (crushed). We store the digital photographs of the monument for future reference, and we also have a program to place the photos on our Web site for others to view.

Once the monument is removed, the grave digging team performs the "lift and deepen" process on the remains. Each set of remains is individually recovered, placed in individual ossuary boxes and placed deeper into the grave.

The remains never leave the grave and are permanently recorded on our records as to their location. (Interring the remains at a new location rather than at the same grave is classified as an exhumation and requires state government approval.)

The site is then available to be licensed to a new family for a minimum period of 50 years from the date the license is issued (which can be different from the date of first interment).
-Bryan Elliott, CEO
Centennial Park Cemetery Authority, Adelaide, Australia