Aboriginal cemetery 'on country' created after land claim removed

Barry Cooley was born in La Perouse, and grew up swimming and playing at Bumbora Point next to where he now works as an adult. When he dies, he will be able to be buried in a dedicated Indigenous cemetery "on country" within a few metres from where he fishes for bream and flathead.

On Tuesday Mr Cooley, 51, visited the bushy spot on the foreshore where the new Indigenous cemetery will be located.

A man of few words, his verdict was that it was "pretty good".

To create the new Indigenous cemetery on Crown land next to the existing Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park in Botany, the NSW and the La Perouse Aboriginal land councils agreed to remove multiple land claims over the 3.8-hectare Bumbora Point site.

In exchange, the La Perouse land council will be given licences to allocate 125 double-depth graves and 100 cremation positions to its community, which required special permission that was granted by the NSW government.

The land will also provide 2000 additional double-depth graves for the general community plus decades of new cremation positions.

Cemetery space in NSW, particularly Sydney, is running out and the number of deaths across Australia is expected to double to 300,000 in 2051.

Local families had been calling for a specific Indigenous cemetery for 30 to 40 years, said Chris Ingrey, chief executive of the La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council.

The arrangement will cut the cost of burials from about $35,000 by about a third, and allow families to grieve and bury its people appropriately, he said.

"The expansion of the cemetery and our agreement will relieve the economic burden for our families at such sad times and more importantly allow our people to be buried on country."

Mr Ingrey said he hoped it would also serve as a model for new Indigenous cemeteries across NSW, where land claims have been made near existing cemeteries.

The new cemetery is part of the Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries' expansion plans. It will be located on Port Botany across the bay from where Mr Cooley's Indigenous forefathers saw Lieutenant James Cook land, and later the French explorer La Perouse.

Without a dedicated cemetery, Indigenous locals have been buried in Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park where Mr Cooley has worked as a grounds keeper for 20 years.

Until the 1930s, though, many Indigenous people from La Perouse were refused burial in the local cemetery and were buried in unmarked graves like many others across NSW.

For 200 years from white settlement, Indigenous cemeteries were desecrated and plundered for bones, says a report by the Department of Environment called In Sad but Loving Memory released in 1998 and reprinted 10 years ago. Fences were removed and, very often, farms or other buildings located on top of remains. Very few cemeteries' locations were mapped or gazetted.

"For Aboriginal people they are sites of memory and emotion which have no equal," it said, noting that few white Australians understood their importance.

Graham Boyd, chief executive of the Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, said the Indigenous cemetery was an opportunity to pay the "ultimate respect for the customs and history of our Aboriginal neighbours".

Without any additional spaces, burial space at Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park (run by the Southern Trust) would run out in 15 years, Mr Boyd said.

Mr Ingrey thanked David Harley, the architect of negotiations between the land councils and the cemetery. Mr Harley also advised the former minister Katrina Hodgkinson on reforms to cemeteries in NSW to provide more burial space.

As part of the deal, the cemetery also relinquished its licence on the heritage-listed Chinese market gardens and agreed that the public should retain access to the foreshore for recreational use.

The cemetery originally proposed expanding onto the farm - one of the last remaining in the Sydney metropolitan area - but it faced huge public opposition.

This story Aboriginal cemetery 'on country' created after land claim removed first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.