Cemeteries as community hubs and recreation spaces? It’s a trend that’s gathering steam internationally, and a concept that was front and centre during New Zealand’s inaugural Cemeteries Week at the start of April.
Organised by the New Zealand Cemeteries and Crematoria Collective, the week saw councils and other organisations holding heritage walks, crematorium tours and other public events to celebrate the contributions cemeteries make to community connectedness.
“Cemeteries are enduring, welcoming places for people to connect with communities, to recognise and uphold different cultural traditions, and to embrace heritage,” says Michelle Rivers, chair of the New Zealand Cemeteries and Crematoria Collective.
“They are also often well located and situated in scenic places, making them ideal green spaces for people who want to go for a walk or run in quiet surrounds.”
The use of cemetery gardens and open spaces for recreation was popular in many Western cities during the 19th century, but became less common in the 20th century following the establishment of dedicated city parks and playing fields, Michelle says.
However, the idea is again coming to the fore in some cities around the world, where residents are rediscovering their amenity value, she says. In Berlin increasing demand for cremation rather than burial has seen some sections of the city’s cemeteries converted into playgrounds and gardens. In New York, some cemeteries are offering outdoor yoga classes and other recreation options on their grounds.
Michelle says this thinking is also gaining traction in Australasia, and it is not unheard of to see families playing a social game of cricket or rugby at some Australian and New Zealand cemeteries. A swing has been installed in Porirua’s Whenua Tapu Cemetery, while across the Tasman, a café has been established in Melbourne’s Springvale Botanical Cemetery, offering jazz and outdoor movie screenings over summer.
Michelle says the evolution in the way cemeteries are being used is being driven by a change in how the public views death and burial places, on the one hand, and rising land prices and funding constraints faced by councils, on the other.
“In places like Auckland, where demand for housing is placing pressure on city parks and other green spaces, there is a need for councils to explore alternative options, including how cemeteries can be best utilised for the benefit of communities.”
So long as communities are well consulted and recreational opportunities are respectful of community desires, this can only be a good thing, she says.
This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.