Interview with the Ballarat Cemetery Manager
Mr. D. C. Beams VICTORIA AUSTRALIA
Could you please tell me a little about your job and what it involves?
My job is manager of Ballarat General Cemeteries Trust. The Trust is run by a board of trustees who are appointed by the government or a governor of the council. My job is to report to them about all aspects of general cemetery management.
Who else works at the cemetery and crematorium and what is their role?
The Ballarat General cemeteries trust controls two cemeteries. The Ballarat old cemetery which was established in 1856 and is still operating. There we have one full time groundsman. The Ballarat New Cemetery consists of a cemetery and a crematorium. These were opened in 1958. There are twelve employees at these two places. There is one employee at the crematorium who handles the cremation, office administration and dealing with the public in terms of memorial. We have three grave diggers, three office staff, including myself. Finally there are five gardeners who control the maintenance and upkeep the grounds.
How did you come to be employed in this industry?
I originally worked in manufacturing for about twenty years in one of Ballarat biggest industries, which had an unfortunate downturn, and I eventually got retrenched from that. I simply waited around until this particular job came up. It was originally assistant manager. The current manager had only about five years until he was due to retire so I was virtually taken on as a trainee. Unfortunately however he passed away from a very serious illness after I had been working here for about four months. The trust didnt put anyone else on instead they gave me a chance to take over in a temporary capacity. Judging on my performance in doing that I was offered the job four months later. It was a difficult to do this in the sense that I had to learn very quickly, but I found it a very helpful industry in the sense that there is no competitiveness that you find in the business industry. I think thats why I received so much support not only from the trust but from the people involved in the industry.
What do you enjoy about your job? What are the benefits?
Satisfaction in assisting the public. We are a community service organisation and our aim is to provide the best possible means of burial, cremation and memorialisation to the community for an affordable price. We aim to provide as much as we possibly can (in the constraints of our finance) to give them as much comfort as possible. To do that, to provide nice burial grounds that are affordable, to oversee a cemetery that people are pleased to come and visit and be released. Where they can remember the dead in dignity and comfort is one of the most pleasing things to achieve.
What are the challenges or difficulties you find in your job?
There are plenty of challenges and certainly difficulties. One of the main difficulties is that you can't change the past. So when dealing with people who have suffered a tremendous emotional loss, that can never be replaced. You can never change that for people but you can try and make death and the hereafter as comfortable as possible. Thats our greatest challenge. To provide a cemetery where people are comfortable to come to and reflect in peace and quiet in nice surroundings. Dealing with people straight after death is very difficult because everyone is different in the way they approach it, the way the want the plaques memorialised and the way they would like to see the grounds. On the day of a funeral we must make sure everything is right. You can't change the weather and if you have a situation where there has been a lot of rain and the burial ground is just a bog it can be a very depressing sight. While you can't change that, you do everything in your power to make sure the people involved are as comfortable as the possibly can be.
What rules and regulations govern your work both here at the cemetery and also at the crematorium?
The cemeteries are governed by the Cemeteries Act, which was first published in 1858 and is currently being reviewed by the State government. Over and above that each cemetery has its own set of rules. Our rules and regulations date back to 1909. The trustees are responsible for that they are given the power to write their own rules and regulations as to what should and shouldnt happened within the cemetery, but all these are guided by the Cemeteries Act. In terms of burial and cremation we have to adhere to that, we just can't go ahead and bury or create without following certain guidelines. This is not only my responsibility but the responsibility of the grave diggers, the crematorium operator and the office staff.
Could you give me a brief history of the cemetery and crematorium?
The old cemetery was a 17acre site that was established in 1858 around the gold-digging era of Ballarat. It was seen by the trust of the time that with Ballarat's expanding population that it wasnt going to be big enough, so they acquired another 127 acres. We have enough vacant to carry us through for another hundred years of burial. The old cemetery has about 35000 entombments in it, half of which occurred before 1885, so there was a tremendous influx of burials into that cemetery very early on.
The new cemetery opened in 1868 and burials commenced immediately. We would have around 70,000 entombments in the new cemetery. We do about 400 burials a year. The cemetery is covered with monumental burial grounds in the European style that were a popular around the 1850's. In the very late 1950's lawn graves were introduced. This opened up the cemetery, which became more of a horticultural type set-up. Expanding lawns, with concrete blocks at the head of each grave which bronze plaques were placed on. We probably have about 20,000 lawn burials in our sections. Also in the 1960's concrete vaults were introduced to cater for the ethnic population.
The crematorium, which started around 1958 was at the stage the only crematorium outside Melbourne (the State capital). We have done about 20 000 cremations all together and about 600 more every year. In the crematorium, we have done about 20,000 cremations. We have a tenure memorialisation which allows people to have their remains entombed for a 25 or 50 years at roses bushes, different types of garden settings, rocks, family memorials and wall etches. We have only recently introduced a new area for permanent memorialisation of cremated remains. We have about 6500 wall etches. We have just on 2000 individual rosebushes. So we offer a fairly wide range of memorials.
The basic role is the disposal of the dead. It's more though than just a health issue though, its a memorial issue and its an educational issue. Many people now are interested in their family trees and remembering their ancestors. They want access not only the graves and memorial sites but also to information that we hold here. That is a tremendous responsibility. We are fortunate here in that we have records back to day one so there is a great responsibility in maintaining both written and computer records to provide information for people.
Education-wise there are a lot of people who come in wanting information about the cemetery and its facility. We get a lot of school trips, going to the old cemetery to visit such graves as the Eureka soldiers and the early gold diggers. We have restored the gatehouse of the old cemetery in the old cemetery and installed a touchscreen computer. It gives people access to records of every cremation and every burial record in the cemetery as well as a lot of other information on the historical side of the cemetery.
Our main responsibility however is still for the proper disposal of the dead and the health and sanitary side of things is our utmost and major responsibility. We must make sure we control that properly, so that there is never any fear of outbreak of disease or anything like that through not burying properly and not cremating properly. There are very high moral, social and health standards that we have to comply with.
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