Redoing a children's area

Date Published: 
March, 2005
Original Author: 
Russ Allison
The Necropolis Springvale, Clayton, Victoria, Australia
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, March 2005

How does a cemetery balance the need to keep the grounds safe and attractive with sensitivity to families whose heartbreak over the loss of a child leads to excessive grave decorations? This Australian cemetery tackled the problem by keeping families involved and informed throughout the process of redoing its children's areas.

The loss of life is rarely easy for a family. This situation is even more traumatic when a child dies before the parents.

The children's area of the cemetery often elicits the greatest emotional response from community group tours and other visitors to the cemetery.

Confronted by windmills, ornaments and the sight of a mother sitting at a baby's grave, visitors are reminded how lucky they have been and, at times, of a loss they may have experienced.

Highly emotional reactions among both general cemetery visitors and the actual friends and relatives of those interred at The Necropolis Springvale in Clayton, Victoria, Australia, were far more likely before we reestablished our children's area. In the past, they were often aghast seeing the variety of ornaments, weathered soft toys, irregular fences and trinkets placed on and around graves.

As in all things, what appeals to one family can be quite disturbing for another. These feelings were often reflected in comments made and confrontations with our staff.

This placed our employees who regularly interacted with the young mothers and fathers, siblings and the grandparents of the baby in a precarious position.

Staff are expected to enforce policy in relation to what can and cannot be left at a grave, yet they also feel the full brunt of emotional outbursts. This occurs when something arguably is not quite right, has gone missing, has been removed or where trinkets on a neighboring grave spill onto an adjoining site.

Understandably, staff were reluctant to strictly enforce memorialization policy in these circumstances, despite its clarity.

A growing problem
At The Necropolis Springvale, the lawn grave, interment fee and plaque were all provided at a significantly subsidized fee. The lawn grave ornamentation policy clearly stated that only fresh flowers and a plaque flush with lawn was acceptable.

Over the last decade. staff increasingly turned a blind eye, allowing recent interments to be commemorated during the initial months of visitation with a variety of miscellaneous ornaments, windmills, wind chimes, etc. This compassionate response to a family's perceived needs in turn created a more serious problem.

It appeared families started trying to outdo each other. Picket fences were erected (often encroaching onto neighboring graves), pebble mix and concrete were poured as grave markers, sunflowers and bumblebees on wooden posts were inserted next to plaques, and teddy bears were attached to adjoining trees.  Maintenance of the graves and plaques became impossible for staff, and we had created a "catch 22."

Some families wanted the area cleaned up. Others indicated they had chosen it because they liked what they saw. Like all cemeteries, we also faced a myriad of public liability and occupational health and safety issues and had no choice but to confront the situation.

Planning a new policy
With strategic guidance from professional counselors, we communicated directly with families. We surveyed and listened to their needs, held focus groups and explained our situation.

Anticipating it would be easier to implement change if families had a visual impression of what we were trying to achieve, we engaged Paul Laycock and Florence Jaquet Landscape Architects to assist with the design. They created artists' impressions of what the area would look like if we stripped everything, then completely reestablished the site.

Some families and sections of the media were opposed to the redevelopment. Fortunately, the bulk of the community acknowledged that our identification of the risks was realistic. They also appreciated the expense, time and effort involved in our consultative process.

It became clear that families had very straightforward needs. They wanted:
•    to feel secure and safe when visiting their own space;
•    areas in which to leave personalized memorabilia;
•    the surroundings to be colorful;
•    us to implement rules clarifying exactly what was permitted; and
•    consistent enforcement to avoid this situation happening again.

Implementing the agreed upon solution involved:
•    temporarily removing plaques and granite bases;
•    disposing of memorabilia that families had not collected;
•    installing memorial beds and edging at the head of the graves to provide an area for plaques and mementos;
•    completely freeing the lawn grave surface of any memorabilia;
•    providing plantings of annuals within the bed, effectively providing soft demarcation between graves;
•    repositioning the plaques in new positions within the bed;
•    permanently displaying the ornamentation rules in the area;
•    management empowering staff to enforce the new rules fairly and consistently; and
•    consistently adopting the approach that if deposited memorabilia is outside the rules, it goes straight in the bin.

The feedback from families and funeral directors alike has been outstanding. The area looks better, is easier to maintain and creates a more appropriate environment for remembering and moving forward.