It is said that there are only two things that are certain in life, death and taxes.
There can be no dispute that death can be big business particularly when people seem to be doing it at regular intervals. The premium on space in and of itself makes privately owned and operated cemeteries an attractive business prospect.
However, when the new owners of a previously held Anglican cemetery are Muslims and that cemetery is in the same local government area as a recent development application for an Islamic School that was vigorously opposed and ultimately voted down, then the fun and games are sure to start all over again.
The current ruckus surrounds the purchase of the St Thomas Anglican Cemetery in Narellan by the Lebanese Muslim Association. This was no minor outlay considering that the LMA paid AUD 1.5 million for the land. It is also worth noting that the former owner of the site bought it for a mere AUD 90,000 in 2004 (photo by Quentin Jones).
The cemetery itself has space for 4000 bodies and it is expected that this will provide some relief from the current shortage of space. Not all religions allow for cremations, which to my mind, is the ultimate space saver, so there is a need for new land to be made available for cemeteries.
The LMA has issued a prospectus that states that the An-Nur Islamic Cemetery and Burial Ground will have space for 1900 single plots and 3800 double plots and can conceivably cater for the needs for burial space in Sydney's south-west for 10 to 15 years.
Presumably, this is the Muslim community's needs that are being catered for. The reality is that there is only one New South Wales cemetery with a dedicated Muslim section and that is Rookwood. Rookwood is running out of space across the board in terms of how many more graves it can accommodate.
The sale seems to have angered some locals who feel that the heritage of the site should have been protected and the site should never have been sold. Some are even arguing that the Anglican Church did not have a right to sell the land. Yet, it was the Anglican Church who decided to sell the site to a funeral firm, Camden Valley Funerals, headed by William and Christine Cole in 2004, and it is this funeral firm that has since sold the site to the LMA.
The history of the cemetery dates at least from 1839 when official records started to be kept. So, there are families who can trace ancestors back almost 170 years in the cemetery. The Coles have apparently insisted that any development of the land respect the graves presently there and that the land be divided up into both Muslim and non-Muslim sections. It is not clear whether this insistence is reflected in the contract of sale though.
Nonetheless, it would be a reasonable request that graves presently on the site not be demolished or moved without the consent of the families involved. The Camden Council has listed the site in the Local Environment Plan which means that any moving of the graves would require council approval.
Nevertheless, Shawky Kassir, President of the Muslim Association, has indicated that the present graves would be protected. He is also confident that the idea of a Muslim cemetery in the area is not going to generate the same sort of fierce opposition that the Quranic Society's application to build a school did.
I guess time will tell on this front.