Particularities in Digitising Cemetery Records – Warracknabeal Cemetery

Map and records search: Warracknabeal Cemetery

  • Digitalised cemetery records
  • Physical survey of the cemetery grounds
  • Interactive online cemetery map
  • 24/7 online access to plot/cemetery information
  • Customised database management solutions delivered at a highly affordable price

Very much the epitome of a rural Australian town, Warracknabeal is situated in the Wimmera region on the Yarriambiack Creek. With just 2,400 permanent residents, this sleepy town holds a history in its cemetery that’s vital in preserving the story of Australia.

With approximately 7,300 interment records, the cemetery is divided between faith and culture-based communities. A stroll through Warracknabeal Cemetery allows one to explore the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Lutheran sections, as well as a section for the historic Chinese community, and niche walls where ashes are interred.

Its records begin in sombre fashion, even as cemeteries go, as they commenced on the 25th of May, 1875 with a stillborn child with the surname Mitchell. In its lawn cemetery, one finds the first burial to be Neil Alexander McQuinn on the 1st of August, 1969. In true community spirit, Warracknabeal Cemetery endured over the years, particularly through the help of volunteers, whose support did not go unnoticed. In fact, the second gate of the institution tells of its gratitude to all volunteers in the community.

Age-old Tales & Some Surprises

As old institutions go, Warracknabeal Cemetery offers more than a century of history and it does not disappoint the curious traveller. For the community, this institution is a treasure trove; a place of living legacy from which the town of Warracknabeal draws inspiration and to which it pays respect. As with most large Australian cemeteries that were established back in the late nineteenth century, the Chronicle team had more than a little work to do in order to consolidate the records that have been accumulated over the years.

One might think that having a ledger book creates some kind of order. To a degree, it does, but this cemetery seemed to have worked a little differently over the decades. When looking between their paper records and their hand-drawn grid map – dating back to 1991 – there’s a glaring feature that our team noticed immediately: the inherited numbering system was carried out in a disorderly fashion.

We’ve mentioned this before and we’ll mention it again – the illusion of ordered data can often be far worse than unordered data. In this case, the rule applies. Without an orthodox numbering system in place, the team needed to work manually. Usually, our tools do this for us automatically, but we had to adapt after what we had found.

In light of this, the digitisation process was slow to begin with. Still, we found a way to work together with the cemetery’s management to find order in the 4,000 records that we had some trouble making sense of.

Clearing the Muddied Water – Expertise & Communication

With a large number of unmatched records, the Chronicle team was left somewhat disoriented. Still, many cemeteries of this scale have similar problems when it comes to their records, and we worked through them with Warracknabeal Cemetery. It all depended on tackling issues systematically, employing a wealth of expertise, a cool head, and thorough communication.

A good cemetery management team always looks for ways to handle their data in the best way possible. For many who don’t use – or have access to –  dedicated cemetery database software, organising records and cemetery plot maps, using Excel can be a good way to keep data fairly organised. Warracknabeal Cemetery, like other institutions who take their community histories seriously, were doing just that. Although their Excel records were not unified, they were still kept well. 7,300 records were simply laid out, consisting of 8 columns. These, of course, were adapted from their paper ledger book – a common first move in digitising records on the way to cemetery database software. But, as mentioned, incomplete data led to quite a challenge to overcome.

In terms of numbers, we were able to match approximately 3,000 records to the map that we created for Warracknabeal Cemetery. If you’ve been keeping up, that left us with more than 4,000 records unmatched – a large chunk. The team was faced with a daunting task, but with dedication on our side and the client’s side, we pushed forward to find matches for those records.

 

This is where communication comes in. Speaking to Judi, the cemetery trust secretary, she confirmed what we had thought – the maps were, indeed, not accurate. Likely due to a compounding of errors across the generations, these records became more and more difficult to keep track of when not consistently managed and organised.

The best way forward, then, was to work digitally from that point on. If the old maps were not matching the records, we needed to begin with material that was correct and move forward from there. Chronicle’s partnership with Metromap allowed us to directly acquire aerial images of the cemetery, and we collaborated to create a stunning visual map for this small town’s institution. At this point, we achieved a stable footing of some kind.

Once that was done, it was up to Judi to do some fieldwork. While we matched what we could – still a large amount of data – Judi walked through the cemetery and manually input data into the Chronicle platform using the new digital map. She filled in relevant details for all plots that were not already on the database, while also editing plot IDs that differed from the current records.

The Living Legacy of Warracknabeal Cemetery

As our projects prove, the team never backs down from a challenge. This project, consistent with the team’s track record, came to fruition. Warracknabeal Cemetery is now live (digitally and with a living history), showing off accurate records, along with beautiful headstone photos taken by Judi herself.

After using Chronicle, it became all the more apparent to Warracknabeal Cemetery that hand-drawn maps can be misleading. Yes, they’re helpful and fulfil a certain role, but since they’re not to scale, it’s far more detrimental than beneficial a tool in a cemetery as dense as this one.

The simple interface is easy to navigate, and with colour-coded plot markers, vacant plots are immediately visible, making it that much easier to sell. The same applies for reserved and occupied plots – cemetery management and members of the public can spot them at a glance without having to consult the records separately. In the end, after wading through thousands of records and mismatched records that resulted in a very particular set of challenges, this community can benefit from a preserved, accurate legacy. If you can relate with Warracknabeal’s problems in managing their records and maps, let us know. If not, find out how your cemetery’s unique problems can have tailored solutions with our cemetery software!

Cemetery Revolutions – How Natural Burial in Australia Can Realign Perception

Eco-friendly alternatives to traditional burial are becoming increasingly popular today. Previously, we’ve discussed the environmental and health impacts of traditional burial which tends to involve embalming and the use of caskets. As we’ve outlined, cremation is resource-intensive and high in pollutants  For many, the question of whether this is sustainable practice moving forward, as climate change gathers momentum, is moving many towards considering green burial options. Opting for green embalming or to be buried in a simple shroud is just one piece of the puzzle. Green burial, as a concept, may just change the way we think of cemeteries altogether, driving a move to reinvent the use of burial space.a

Cemetery design has remained stagnant for a long time, especially in Australia and “the West”. Some may see the current design of cemeteries to be the only way of burying, the only mechanism of remembering the dead. This may apply both to burial and storing the remains of ashes, but perhaps it isn’t the design of cemeteries that has remained stagnant – our perspectives and collective mindset has remained languid. It may be that it’s because we view the dead as placid, unmoving, and motionless, that we’ve allowed our perspective towards the issue to mirror what we believe their state to be.

Stepping Stones in Redesign – Alternatives to Memorialisation

Yet, we’re currently amongst the living with responsibilities to the earth and the land on which we live, with which we interact, and with which we depend. Those who share our thoughts come with innovative, ground-breaking ideas of their own, like David Neustein of Other Architects and Kevin Hartley (Founder and CEO of Earth Funerals, leading the way for natural burial in Australia) believe that it’s part of our responsibility, in the industry, to view cemetery design as dynamic and sustainable. Those may be buzzwords for our time, but they’re highly relevant to changing expectations in a contemporary world dealing with alarming rates of climate change and shortage of burial spaces in urban areas, even before the current pandemic.

Other Architecs Burial Belt Project (http://otherarchitects.com/other-spaces#/burial-belt/)

Perspective is key, and according to Neustein, a shift towards viewing burial space as open space instead of dead land (we’re unsure if that pun was intended) is necessary. It would mean that we need to start considering the transition of cemeteries and ash memorialisation spaces towards a meaningful experience rather than a transactional one.

What does this mean for cemetery design? For Neustein and his team at Other Architects, the notion of time is intricately interwoven with reconceptualisation of how we see cemeteries. For Other Architects, it’s not simply about a green cemetery or a natural burial ground, but more about a new focus on contemporary issues and interests which also considers traditional design elements. In a cemetery landscape, tradition feels comforting for many. Tradition is inextricable from legacy for many, so how do the changing aspects of concern in society today – one where green burials are becoming an increasingly popular choice – come together with longstanding tradition? Neustein, like Chronicle, believes that this can be done by using the latest in technology as a tool for digital design strategies.

Let’s look at how these ideas can be used to theorise and develop possible solutions for current issues in the cemetery industry. Other Architects recently engaged with Northern Metropolitan Cemeteries of Sydney to address concerns that many have voiced to the institution. Ash memorialisation in cemeteries, currently, is felt to be monotonous and devoid of individual agency when interred in a letterbox or car park design. According to Neustein, it’s evident from the statistics – only 22% who opted for cremation chose for their ashes to remain in a cemetery setting. How, then, should people memorialise their lost loved ones? Is there anything else?

Digital and Traditional – Natural Burial in Australia Engaging with Time

While, admittedly, this discussion deals with the remains from cremation, it does offer a vantage point from which to look at cemetery design with green burial options in mind. Other Architects were blessed with an open brief – a blessing to some, a curse to others. For Neustein and his team, these briefs tend to fall under the former category. It wasn’t the space that was conceptualised differently – the team thought of memorialising differently. By reimagining ash memorialising in terms of the use of landscape clusters incorporating furniture and plants, interacting with the dead became less formal an affair, a more organic process. By using a suite of different memorial types that were lightweight but could also be anchored, relocation of these markers would be possible. This type of setting could resemble a crowd scene rather than the structured, letterbox format. It means that the bereaved would feel confident that their interred loved ones had their own space rather than becoming a number in a predetermined system.

What does this tell us about how to view the future of cemeteries? For one, we learn that we don’t necessarily need to retain memorialisation spaces in such a way that visitors are “able to see the system”, as Neustein puts it. By using a computational approach, where each memorial is tagged and located in space, it produces a record of its location, one which can be retrieved. This is analogous to what we do at Chronicle and is something that we can replicate or adapt in other settings; options for natural burial in Australia, for one.

When engaging with time as a medium, Other Architects showcase how this could be done with their finalist design bid for a 128 hectare greenfield site, which is the largest cemetery development in Victoria for 100 years. Other Architects were tasked with creating a design that meets projections of demand for traditional burial spaces but one that also allows for the flexibility and change in the future. This, in a nutshell, is how time-based design could be explained and is very relevant to changing attitudes towards burial with the rise of green embalming and green burial options.

From Rigid to Flowing

Again, the idea of an organic landscape is employed here. Neustein describes how an adaptable grave zone that efficiently houses a certain region of burial plots is the mode of delivery. Each zone, in turn, comes together to create a larger, more natural landscape. Design remaining dynamic over time is a priority, as they’d use a framework that can shift with time and demand. As opposed to planning an entire, massive cemetery in advance, the number of burial spaces and landscape area can adapt. Certainly, this would mean moving away from a traditional, fixed grid that many have become so used to, in favour of a framework that can evolve.

It’s this goal of prioritising less resource-intensive options of interment that leads to what may be Australia’s grandest speculative green cemetery idea to date – the Burial Belt. With the increasing scarcity of dependable land within Australia’s cities, there’s now an urgent shortage of burial space. Simultaneously, Australian cities are suffering from vegetation being stripped away at their edges due to land clearing. At its core, the Burial Belt seeks to address both these issues by providing replacement land by offering huge forests that double as burial spaces.

Earth Funerals x Other Architects – Theory Becomes Practical

https://earthfunerals.org/
http://otherarchitects.com/

As the forest moves over time, clearing in some areas and filling others, burial spaces will be evident at first but reclaimed by nature later. What is a natural burial? This may just be it in its most organic form. But how does this manifest practically?

Other Architects’ concepts become practical reality when Neustein meets Hartley of Earth Funerals – a meeting that both agree was serendipitous. At Bendoc Cemetery in Victoria, Australia, Hartley and Neustein worked together to design and create a functioning natural burial ground. As opposed to the rigid grid format, grave sites were winding and twisting to line the clearing of trees to create a walk through woodland. Currently, graves are placed next to clearly identifiable markers found in the landscape. Hartley believes that Bendoc Cemetery is, conceptually, something of a microcosm of Other Architect’s Burial belt. The natural burial graves, currently being mapped by the Chronicle team, represents a latency in time. There’s more space for burial as the forest moves with time, recycling space as the years pass.

For Hartley, moving towards dedicated green cemeteries is the ideal, with natural burial sections in cemeteries the “least worst option”. As it would still operate within a traditional cemetery ground framework, green burial sections would be constrained in the way they address both  human and environmental needs. Instead, moving towards dedicated natural burial grounds where manicured lawns are done away with, in favour of endemic grasses is part of the end goal. Hartley believes that a preference is growing in Australian communities towards these ‘whole of system’ ideas.

The Revolution Will Be Digitised

The revolution in cemetery design depends on the latest technology in order to map plots and spaces. Accurately mapping these spaces using digital means is essential as finding the resting place of a loved one is priority for the bereaved. Without digital mapping, questions about green burial cost or green funeral options would fall to the wayside if no compromise between traditional elements and evolving aspects of concern is reached. As we move towards freer arrangement patterns in the cemetery space as natural burial in Australia becomes a force for environmental improvement, we’re working on the solutions. Learn all you need to know about digital mapping for your cemetery with the best of our digital cemetery experts.