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Springvale Botanical Cemetery in Melbourne is melting down crematorium memorials  for people who died as recently as 13 years ago. Orange stickers are placed on the memorials, stating, “The tenure on this memorial has expired. Please contact Administration.”

The reason is that the plots were purchased and reserved with a 25-year tenure — but the clock on that starts from the day the space is reserved, not the day a person dies, which can be years later.

The cemetery has placed the same orange sticker on some reserved cremation memorial sites that haven’t even been used.

The Necropolis Springvale annual report states that in the past eight months of the 2008/09 financial year they removed 1527 cremation memorials and Springvale Botanical Cemetery’s CEO, Russ Allison, said there are still 25,000 memorials that are expired.

Allison told Crikey that historically, the tenure started with the insertion of the ashes or earlier if the memorial space had been reserved: “You could have purchased it, it expired and it hadn’t been used.”

Cremation memorials that are purchased or reserved under the limited form of tenure are removed 25 years later if the next of kin or whoever reserved the space can’t be contacted.

If the relatives are contacted, they can decide what happens to the cremation memorial, including renewing the tenure or transferring it into perpetuity. If the memorial is disestablished, the plaque is photographed and melted down. If a relative wishes to keep the photograph of the memorial space, it is available to buy for $10.

All cremation memorials at Springvale were offered in perpetuity until this was replaced by a 25- or 50-year tenure system in the mid-’50s, according to Allison. However, there are memorials dated as far back as 1952 that have orange stickers on them.

Perpetuity was not reintroduced until 1998. At that time only 25 years and perpetuity were offered because the 50-year option had been phased out in the mid-’70s.

A source, who does not wish to be identified, told Crikey: “Personally I find it distressing that during the period (when temporary memorials were mandatory), families did not have a choice. I have knowledge of one case where the recorded next of kin was not contacted despite living at the same address as recorded in the cemetery’s records.”

Allison is unable to confirm whether or not people were aware when purchasing the tenure that, if they were unable to be contacted, the memorial would be removed after 25 years. He admitted the cemetery may also make mistakes in cases where cremation memorials purchased in perpetuity have tenure expired stickers on them.

“It’s possible … especially when you’re dealing with old records. If you make mistakes, you fix them,” he said.

Some families who are contacted choose to transfer the tenure into perpetuity, however, almost 80% of letters come back “address unknown”.

“Twenty five years on, our chances of finding people are pretty slim,” said Allison.

Since enforcing the 25-year tenure in 1990-2000, almost 70% of people will now purchase perpetuity up-front.

Melbourne General Cemetery, which also offers the limited tenure, is yet to remove any expired memorials, according to Gina Webling, the memorial sales consultant for Melbourne and St Kilda cemeteries.

Pastor Charles Lazaro, of Dandenong Baptist Church, believes a better option may be an extended tenure. He said, “a hundred years would cover two generations. For people who go overseas, if they come back, what happens then?”

Lazaro also suggested that the ashes of those whose families can’t be contacted could be kept in a vault or in storage somewhere.

Russ Allison said: “At the moment there’s 25 years in tenure and nothing in between … Maybe we should be looking at selling batches of 25, 50, 75 or even 100.”

More cemeteries are expected to adopt the limited 25-year tenure since the merge of cemetery trusts, Necropolis Springvale and Cheltenham Regional Cemetery Trust. The Necropolis Springvale and CRCT trusts merged on March 1 this year, becoming the Southern Metropolitan Cemetery Trust. In the recent 2003 adapted Cemeteries & Crematoria Act, version No. 20, it states:

“Subject to this Act, cremated human remains … if interred in a public cemetery may be interred for perpetuity; or for a limited tenure not exceeding 25 years in accordance with a right of interment.”

The limited 25-year tenure on cremation memorials is only offered at cemeteries originally under Necropolis Springvale, including Springvale Botanical Cemetery, Melbourne General Cemetery, St Kilda Cemetery and Dandenong Cemetery.

All cemeteries originally part of the Cheltenham Regional Cemetery Trust have never offered the limited tenure. These cemeteries are Cheltenham Pioneer Cemetery, Cheltenham Memorial Park, Bunurong Memorial Park and Brighton General Cemetery.

The 25-year tenure will eventually be available in all cemeteries under the new Southern Metropolitan Cemetery Trust, but Allison said “it’s not in a short-term objective, there are more important things to do”.

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Peter Fray

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