Dead-set mate, cemeteries have rules!

Posted on 02 Apr 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Lloyd at Moonlight Head cemetery
Moonlight Head Cemetery Trust chair Lloyd French.

From presiding over burials in the driving rain to helping lost mourners navigate pot-holed roads on their way to a funeral, life can be far from dull for members of country cemetery trusts.

Lloyd French isn’t one to sit on his hands when there’s work to be done.

That’s why, rather than ask for permission to bury a mate who had died of a heart attack while playing cricket, he just rolled up his sleeves and did it.

“I didn’t think I needed permission” the 76-year-old told the Community Advocate, relaying the story of his unsanctioned burial at the tiny Moonlight Head cemetery in a remote corner of Victoria’s Otway Ranges.

The family of Lloyd’s deceased friend, whom he knew well, travelled all the way from Jindabyne in the NSW Snowy Mountains following the premature death.

“I said to them, ‘Peter loved this area; we could probably slip him into Moonlight Head.’

“So I just went out there and got a plot, arranged the stones and we had a very nice service. Never asked anybody.”

Six months later, the phone rang.

“I got a call from the then secretary of the [Moonlight Head Cemetery] trust who lived in Mortlake who said, “You’re supposed to actually ask!”

Learning that you can’t just bury people – even friends – without permission was more than a wake-up call for Lloyd.

It was also the catalyst that inspired him to join the Moonlight Head Cemetery Trust.

“I said [to the secretary], ‘Okay, how can I make it right?’

“He said, ‘Our chairman has just died. Would you become the chairman of the trust?’ So, I did. That was 33 years ago, and I’ve been the chair ever since.”

“We are very fortunate to have such civic-minded people among us delivering this essential community service.”
Ian Woodruff, Our Community.

In the years that have followed, Lloyd and his fellow trust members have worked tirelessly to lovingly maintain historic Moonlight Head, which was established in 1906 and is home to just a handful of graves.

A restored wooden archway originally built in the 1960s stands at the entrance to the neatly manicured 0.404-hectare cemetery, located on a windswept headland with sweeping views out to sea.

The trust works hard to protect colourful orchids that bloom only at certain times of the year and attract increasing numbers of tourists.

Visitors also pay homage to the restored memorial to the 12 people who lost their lives when the barque Fiji foundered off the coast at Wreck Beach within sight of the future cemetery in 1891.

Moonlight Head mowing
Mowing the grass at Moonlight Head.

Overseeing this tranquil patch of land are the 11 members of the Moonlight Head Cemetery Trust, comprising equal numbers of male and female members drawn from the tight-knit local community which numbers little more than a couple of hundred residents.

Lead by Lloyd as chair, they have taken a highly pragmatic, hands-on approach to their duties.

These have ranged from straightforward tasks such as mowing the grass at the cemetery to overseeing burials conducted in torrential rain and navigating complex government red tape.

“Someone’s got to be there from the trust when there’s a burial. You’ve got to see the death certificate for a start, and you must be present,” said Lloyd.

He also needs to be on-site for more practical reasons.

“I dig the graves with a couple of other blokes [on the trust] and because we're local, we can do it cheaper compared to someone having to come from outside the area.”

So much so, Lloyd has claimed Moonlight Head is the most affordable cemetery in which to be buried in the entire country.

“We don’t try and make money out of it. We just try and cover our costs,” he said.

“We can’t see the point of making it expensive. We try and look after local people,” said Lloyd, noting that an increasing number of outsiders are buying plots at Moonlight Head.

Lloyd sweeping views Moonlight Head
Moonlight Head Cemetery has sweeping coastal views.

The Moonlight Head Cemetery Trust is fortunate to have members as proud and passionate as Lloyd and his fellow trustees willing to volunteer their time and energy.

Across the nation, many tiny country cemeteries struggle to attract volunteers willing to serve in an official capacity.

Those who do volunteer are few in number, often of advanced years and conscious there is no one in the wings waiting to step up when they are gone.

Our Community’s Ian Woodruff has facilitated several workshops for the Victorian Cemetery Trusts Governance and Operational Training Program, designed to help trust members to perform their roles and meet their responsibilities.

He said that many people assume that cemeteries are run by local councils, but the reality is that cemetery trust members are appointed by the state government and volunteer their time and enthusiasm.

“We are very fortunate to have such civic-minded people among us delivering this essential community service”, he said.

He said future planning issues faced by many cemetery trusts include:

  • uncertain long-term financial planning due to cemeteries filling up and therefore lost capacity to charge for future burials
  • challenges of acquiring more land to expand when cemeteries eventually fill up
  • managing the many laws and regulations that impact on cemetery operations.
  • a dearth of volunteers, meaning the already limited number of people serving as cemetery trust members can also find themselves carrying out volunteer work to maintain the cemetery grounds
  • keeping abreast of evolving trends and issues, such as differing religious burial needs, greater interest in eco-funerals, and the emerging role of cemeteries in protecting the environment and as recreational spaces.

Keen to help out in his adopted community of Castlemaine in central Victoria after moving from Sydney with his young family several years ago, Adam Perrett volunteered to join the local cemetery trust.

“I’ve always been fascinated with cemeteries, even as a kid,” he said when the Community Advocate visited the town last year.

“I thought that it would be interesting. I’d never done it before.”

Adam, who manages the town’s busy Shedshaker micro-brewery, said the Cemetery Trust role had proved to be more challenging than he’d anticipated.

“I don’t think people realise how tenuous the whole cemeteries trust set-up is, because there is no real income,” he said.

“It’s a really tricky space and I have a lot of sympathy for people who have a go at it. It’s hard work.”

“I certainly never thought when I first got involved in the trust that I would be there in 30 years, but I have enjoyed it. I'm not ready to stop just yet."
Lloyd French.

Lloyd French (chair)

Helen Grant (secretary)

Georgina, Geoff and Alistair digging out and bagging Montbretias.

Kerry Audsley (has family buried at Moonlight Head)

Georgina Beale (has family buried at Moonlight Head)

Philomena Horsley

Tony Marjoram

Ashley Neave (whose grandfather was a founding member of the Moonlight Head Cemetery)

Larissa Nicholls

Leanne Robe (family members buried at Moonlight Head)

Brian Salmon

Alistair Woods.

Lloyd said he feels fortunate to be part of a local community that takes pride in maintaining Moonlight Head and has no shortage of volunteers ready to step forward.

“Some cemeteries have only two or three members on their trust, and they have a much bigger population than us to draw on,” he said.

Moonlight Head orchid
Orchids add a dash of colour to Moonlight Head.

Moonlight Head is different.

“Everybody on the trust gets on and we never have a problem with numbers. We always have someone putting their hand up to join”

One of the trust’s biggest issues until only recently was the unmade road that made access to the cemetery a nightmare for trust members and mourners alike.

“If it was the middle of winter and there was a burial there, we’d worry about the hearse disappearing down a pothole, that’s how bad it was,” said Lloyd.

“We’d have to ring around regularly among different government departments, the local council and National Parks asking them to fix a few potholes so people could get in for the service.”

Moonlight Head meeting
Members of the Moonlight Head Cemetery Trust meet around the picnic table next to the historic cemetery's entrance arch.

Lloyd said part of the reason he has stayed involved with the trust for so long is that it’s as much about social connection as it is about maintaining the cemetery.

“We get together and have a bit of a laugh sitting around a little picnic table at the cemetery, which is good, because you have a little bit of a clean-up at the same time, so it’s part working bee and part meeting.”

That sense of social connection extends to funeral services as well.

''When somebody local has died, members of the trust will often go because they know the person,” said Lloyd.

"Sometimes we'll be out there having a few beers and wines, there's music playing and people are having a great time [celebrating the life of the deceased].

"Then you realise you've actually got to fill the grave in because it's getting dark!"

There are historical connections too which bind the trust together.

Meetings of the cemetery trust were once held in what is now Lloyd’s century-old home, which was originally owned by one of the trust founders.

Then there is trust member Ash Neave, a local dairy farmer, who is following a family tradition.

His father also served on the trust, which Ash’s grandfather helped establish more than 120 years ago.

After more than three decades as chair, Lloyd said he would like to hand over the responsibility to someone else but he isn't ready to hang up his boots altogether.

“I certainly never thought when I first got involved in the trust that I would be there in 30 years, but I have enjoyed it. I'm not ready to stop just yet."

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