There is a large clearing in the otherwise tightly packed lands of the Melbourne General Cemetery, lush grass stretching out between the headstones. I barely have time to wonder why this space has been left clear before I realise – it hasn’t. These are the paupers’ graves. Beneath my feet hundreds of people are buried, their final resting places unmarked. Convention allows for corpses to be stacked three high in burial sites, but that’s not the case here. Due to a period of corruption in the 1970s, more people were interred under this small plain than should have been. Further indignity, and another reminder that money doesn’t only divide us in life.
In the weeks following a particularly brutal rental inspection, in which we are marked down for dusty skirting boards, I begin half-heartedly looking at houses for sale. The previous year, the roller blind fell down in our front room, smashing a glass and filling the room with dust on its way down. When the agent-approved handyman came to fix it, he tsked. ‘Cheap blinds for a cheap reno’ he said, looking down at the fallen scroll. ‘This is a million-dollar house too. It’s a real shame.’ At the time I’d smiled politely and written off his estimation as fantasy. The shower consistently leaks onto the floor and the living room is covered with linoleum. A million dollars seemed a bit steep.
As I scrolled through the endless list of houses available to buy within my vague slice of Melbourne, however, it turns out his guess was actually pretty conservative. Piecing together the strategically shot warehouse conversions, the jargon, and the too-good-to-be-true-oh-it-sold-at-twice-the-estimated-price listings, I slowly learned that in the current Melbourne market a million dollars will get you a million euphemisms – something ‘cosy’, a ‘starter house’ with ‘potential’. I did the maths. If you lay out a million one dollar coins, side by side, they’ll create a golden line exactly 25 kilometres long – that’s approximately how far out of the city you’ll need to move to buy a decent house for less than that price.
I’m not being precious – I know it is a privilege to have a roof over your head at all, and I’m not looking for all-marble surfaces or three excess rooms filled with unused sports equipment. However, even if housing prices do start to fall or plateau, as predicted, and even if a bank were to approve me for a million-dollar loan – unlikely – I’m not convinced that the reward of a house on the other side of decades of debt would be worth it.
My last two rentals have had three things in common – large cracks in the walls that billow in dust, creaking wooden floors that I have genuinely feared falling through, and price tags, if they were ever to be put on the market, that stretch towards two million dollars.
For most of us, it seems owning a simple house in a location that won’t require a two-hour commute is a dream that has rapidly become unachievable and undesirable.
For most of us, owning a simple house in a location that won’t require a two-hour commute is a dream that has rapidly become unachievable and undesirable.
I sit down and transfer that month’s rent to an agent who, in turn will pass it on to my landlord; a person I’ve never met, whose name I don’t even know. It’s strange to think about. Once a month I send numbers through the air to a stranger as a way of thanking them for letting me live in their house. As I hit send, I wonder how many properties they own.
Renting isn’t always bad, in and of itself. It gives you flexibility, less responsibility. But we’re taught to view it as a temporary situation. As ownership seems to move further and further away, however, it feels more and more like throwing money down a well – or through that gap in the staircase that is yet to be fixed even though you reported it on the last inspection.
The ad catches me at a vulnerable moment, which means that the question, instead of being a fleeting ‘what if’, sticks in my mind far longer than it should. Stretched over the iron gates is a large banner – Limited Release Of Exclusive Graves: Enquire Today. As I drive past, I find myself thinking – could I live in a cemetery?
We are taught to fear death from an early age. In film and media, the only times we see cemeteries are in moments of sadness or horror. Families crying as their loved one is lowered slowly into the ground. The young blonde woman running screaming between the headstones as the knife-wielding murderer hunts her down.
Sure, the idea of living in a cemetery is an eccentric one; it’s practically an oxymoron. But when you start to peel away the superstition and focus on the practical considerations, it actually begins to make a strange kind of sense.
Graves don’t come cheap. At the Melbourne General Cemetery, a single grave will set you back anywhere between $15,000 and $50,000 – possibly even more depending on the location. So, if you buy a burial plot while you’re alive, what happens to it between the time of payment and the time of death?
I started to map the hypothetical out in my mind. If it’s your land, bought and paid for, what’s stopping you from occupying it while you’re still alive? At the grander end of the scale, could you buy a mausoleum and convert it into a macabre studio apartment? Or perhaps you could embrace minimalism and the tiny house trend, and build essentially a capsule hotel room over a burial plot, and just shower at the gym? Even as a temporary measure, you could park a caravan or drag a sleeping bag over to get in a few nights sleep at what is, after all, your eternal resting place.
If it’s your land, bought and paid for, what’s stopping you from occupying it while you’re still alive?
My plans, questions and solutions started to grow more detailed. If you weren’t allowed to build above ground, could you install some kind of bunker? What about water and electricity? How much room does a generator take up?
It all started spilling out from my head and into conversations, with mixed responses. Some people also got really into teasing out the immediate and everyday concerns (what about laundry or pets?) while others smiled politely but, ultimately and clearly, were uncomfortable with the topic. Whichever camp people fell in, however, it was just a thought experiment I was raising, right? No one would actually want to live in a graveyard? Right? Elizabeth?
Death, even though it is talked about, is a taboo subject. We don’t like to go into the details. It’s just too weird. Or spooky. Or maybe disrespectful. Perhaps, even just by talking about it, we tempt fate? As a result, rumours about what happens to us after we die aren’t interrogated deeply, and, much like the idea that carrots help you see in the dark or that humans only utilise 10 per cent of their brains, stories and half-truths end up being filed as fact.
Do your nails keep growing after death? No. Did they really bury people with bells in case they were actually still alive? Yes. What about the one that says your eternal resting place is actually temporary? That after 100 years the cemetery digs you up, cremates your remains, then re-sells the plot? That answer’s a little more complicated.
There’s only so long you can spend in the ouroboros of your own mind as you imagine different housing options for a grave you don’t yet own. The questions rapidly started to outweigh the answers. So I started digging.
I’ve always been attracted to graveyards, though I’ve never had any intention of ending up in one. To me they are a strange nexus between finally being free of the restrictions of life and society, yet wanting to maintain a legacy beyond your living years. Before social media and the internet, a grave site was how the world knew who a person was. Reading headstones, looking between the lines, seeing who is buried next to whom, can tell us more than a thousand-page novel. Look closely and you can see a person’s religion, career choices, class level and interests.
There’s more going on than the words and numbers tell us; cemeteries tell stories through specialised symbolism. The secret language is whispering all the time between the easily perceptible; crosses, menorahs, veiled urns, all imbued with meaning. – a cornucopia overflowing with fruit can mean a full and well-lived life, while a broken column isn’t a sign of dilapidation and time; it’s a deliberate choice to show a life cut tragically short.
Reading headstones, looking between the lines, seeing who is buried next to whom, can tell us more than a thousand-page novel.
Read between the names and dates and you can see the grief of the couple who lost five children in six years; see how many mothers were carried away by childbirth. There are the families who lost soldier-aged sons at six-month intervals – enough time to move through one stage of grief before being hit by the cycle starting all over again. There’s the complexity of remarriage, men buried with two women who in life probably never met, but in death will be three feet apart for all eternity.
Then there’s the one-upmanship, or the attempts to show love by making your family’s plot the grandest and biggest of all. It’s beautiful and grotesque in equal measure.
When I contact the Melbourne General Cemetery, they are – naturally – suspicious, even though I don’t outright ask if someone could live in their own grave before they die.
I learn that there are approximately 300,000 people buried in their grounds, and that interments have slowed from hundreds a year to somewhere around 70 to 80. It makes sense – space is at a premium.
We go back and forth, clarifying and querying. They tell me they are constantly looking for vacant land in the cemetery, and that this is what they offer to the public. Vacant land, they explain, means land in which there have been no previous burials. At Melbourne General Cemetery all burials, either underground or in crypts, are in perpetuity – so no, they won’t dig you up after 100 years, though there are some cemeteries that will.
In between the laws and regulations, cemeteries are highly variable. It’s important to read the fine print and not everything is logical. Some cemeteries will exhume bodies after a set period of time. Others will leave coffins where they are, but limit cremation memorials to 25 or 50 years before clearing the way for someone else. By the same token, not everyone buried in the one cemetery is subject to the same rules – it depends on when they died or when they bought their plot or memorial as, again, things change.
When I finally ask what is stopping people from living in graves or mausoleums, I am told that the ‘Holder of Right (the legal term for the purchaser of a plot) must submit a permit to erect any structure and receive our approval. We have very strict requirements and would not permit any such above ground structure in which someone could reside.’
This doesn’t rule out bunkers.
‘It’s not something I’ve thought much about,’ says my friend diplomatically, when I pop up on Facebook Messenger asking her about the legalities of living in a graveyard. She is a lawyer, and has known me since I was three, so takes these kinds of questions in her stride. ‘I guess it depends what you’re actually paying for.’
She says that while she doesn’t know for sure, it’s possible that cemeteries are actually selling you the promise of a spot when you die, and not the land itself.
‘So you might not be getting a specific piece of land?’ I ask.
‘Yeah’ she replies – and even if you were, I suspect you couldn’t legally live on the cemetery plot. It’s like a “condition subsequent”, I think. You give money on the condition that you will be buried on a plot of land at the time of death.’
I say that I’ll be heading to the cemetery the following week for a tour, and she tells me to find out whether the land is privately owned or if it belongs to the government.
Perhaps I am selfish, but I don’t want my body to go back into the cycle of life in a natural way. After any usable organs are harvested and redistributed, I don’t want what remains to be consumed by the earth. I want to be burned, incinerated, and then released to the wind – all concerns of legacy and ego blown away with the dust that was once me.
One of the only reasons I would ever consider getting buried is to have a site that future generations of people like me could visit out of morbid curiosity some decades or centuries in the future. I don’t imagine it as somewhere my grandchildren will weep and lay flowers, or where a future Mary Shelley will lose her virginity; more a record of another life lived, part of the social fabric of my moment in history. But this desire is not enough to make me commit to an eternity in the ground.
The famous people are drawcards, yes, but it is the graves of the faceless nobodies who tell the stories that would otherwise be lost to history forever.
Cemeteries are dotted with the graves of those considered to be important historical figures. I’ve visited the mausoleum of Eva Peron in Buenos Aires and thought about the long, convoluted journey her body took to get there – at one point her embalmed remains were stolen and remained missing for 16 years. Closer to home, the Melbourne General Cemetery houses doomed explorers Burke and Wills; Sir Charles Hotham, the man who is widely held responsible for causing the Eureka Stockade; and Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced Ned Kelly.
Burke and Wills are accompanied by a giant stone. The space the two of them occupy could probably accommodate hundreds of paupers. Hotham’s gravesite, in its glory days, had a pillar so tall it stood out across the graveyard. And Barry is buried in a double plot with a headstone that lists his many and varied impressive accomplishments. The one thing it doesn’t list, however, is the fact that buried in the same plot is his long term mistress. Her name is nowhere to be seen, officially. The only way you know she’s there is by the small plaque, outside the bounds of the grave, that was added decades later. For historical reasons.
The famous people are drawcards, yes, but it is the graves of the faceless nobodies who paint a picture of the zeitgeist, who tell the stories that would otherwise be lost to history forever.
It’s somewhat ironic then that these are the people whose final resting places are viewed as less important. People like Hotham and Barry are written about in history books; they will be remembered beyond where their bones are buried. The others however live purely within the spans of their own lifetimes; their carefully crafted gravestones are all that remain of their stories.
‘In perpetuity’ means forever, but sometimes that can be a monkey paw agreement; a curse. Graveyards, weird as it sounds, are still businesses. Concentrated sites of history and reverence, yes, but still businesses. They too can go bankrupt. What happens then?
The Old Melbourne Cemetery operated from 1837 to 1854, on the site of what is now the Queen Victoria Market. The records have since been lost, so there is no way of knowing exactly who, or even how many were buried there, but it is estimated that over its 17 years of operation, approximately 8000 people were interred at the site.
It’s a good location, and even in the 1800s was desirable land. Despite this, when the markets were built in the 1870s, they initially only took over part of the location, building only on top of some graves – mostly those of minority groups – but leaving the majority intact. 50 years later however, more space was needed, and so the decision to raze the remaining land was made.
Death is long touted as the great equaliser, but what happens beyond that depends on your status, your fame, and your wealth.
It’s expensive and time consuming to exhume and re-inter bodies so the people responsible for the construction of the markets made a choice. They took a look at who the most important and historically significant figures buried there were, dug them up and re-buried them elsewhere. Everyone else had their headstones knocked down, and now lie still and nameless as the thunderous steps of bargain hunters and tourists pass over them.
I could live in a graveyard, if they let me. The dead are nothing to fear. But neither are they the escape from the foibles of the living I had hoped for either. In a lot of ways, cemeteries actually amplify the issues that separate and haunt us while we’re alive.
They are separated by religion and race, though the lines have slowly blurred over time. The headstones and the crypts are just another series of streets; a neighbourhood. Sure, it’s cheaper by the square foot than houses for the living, but people still care about having the biggest plot on the block; the tallest column; the saddest, most imposing crying angel statue.
Death is long touted as the great equaliser, and perhaps the moment of death is. But what happens beyond that, like taxes (yet another one of the inevitabilities of life), depends on your status, your fame, and your wealth.
In life, should the cemetery allow, I could build a tiny narrow house, taller even than Hotham’s column. It would be more affordable than a house among the living. But this would mess with the natural order. Graveyards are beautiful places but they are also a microcosm – in them death echoes life. Silent and divided.
It’s grey and drizzling when I arrive for my tour of the cemetery and a bird is slowly circling, looking for somewhere solid to land. My theory that living in a cemetery could provide some kind of reprieve from the aggressively enforced stratifications of life is feeling somewhat tragic and flimsy, but even so, I’m still circling too.
As we weave around the graves, I learn that all the plots are on crown land and so my friend was right – it wouldn’t belong to you. All you would be purchasing is a promise. Perhaps you could still make an argument for building a bunker, but it would be a long, hard fight.
My guide is generous with her time and her knowledge. Halfway through, she points out a brightly painted gazebo, and tells me I’ll be shocked when I hear what it’s for. I smile politely even though I know what the answer is going to be. ‘People used to come here even when it wasn’t for a funeral’ she exclaims. ‘They’d even stay and have lunch. They didn’t fear death as we do now. These days we shut it away; we hide.’
An earlier version of this essay was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize.