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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

ACT’s first public crematorium opens in Gungahlin

The ACT’s first publicly owned crematorium officially opened at Gungahlin Cemetery today, 15 March, attended by members of Canberra’s Indian community.

Canberra’s Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists have long wanted a crematorium; these faiths require or prefer the body to be consumed by fire, believing cremation releases the soul swiftly and keeps the Earth clean.

However, a 2018 review of the Cemeteries and Crematoria Act 2003 found that ACT funeral services did not meet the needs of 11% of Canberrans with a religious or cultural need for cremation, according to ACT Minister for City Services, Chris Steel.

The ACT, expected to reach 500,000 people by 2030, needs three or four crematoria; but to date Canberra’s only crematorium has been privately-owned Norwood Park. Many Canberrans can attest that Norwood Park offers an excellent service, but Mr Steel noted that the crematorium has often been booked out. Some mourners have had to wait longer than culturally appropriate for cremations, or even travel interstate, as far as Sydney and Melbourne, to scatter ashes into the sea.

The Gungahlin crematorium was completed in December. Since it opened in February, 10 people have been cremated.

A dedicated viewing room allows mourners to watch the cremation and participate in religious ceremonies. The viewing room can seat up to 25 people. Cameras in the viewing room and the crematorium room can broadcast and record the process.

“Very few crematoria have a room specifically designed for [viewing],” Philip Shelley, CEO of the ACT Public Cemeteries Authority, said.

A bariatric cremator can handle obese or overweight bodies.

Kanti Jinna, a Hindu member of the Cemeteries Authority board, thanked the government for understanding and meeting the needs of local multicultural communities. In the last 20-30 years, he said, new immigrants had come, who needed to fulfil the final sacrament (samskara) at the end of life.

Manish Raj, who presents a Hindi radio program, comes from Varanasi (formerly Benares), the sacred city on the Ganges. Hundreds of Hindus come to Varanasi each year, hoping to die there and achieve moksha, freedom from the wheel of birth and rebirth. There, 80 people are cremated each day at the ghats, the funeral pyre lit by the eldest son.

But it has been difficult to perform the rituals at Norwood Park, according to Mr Raj. The new crematorium, he hopes, will let the family perform those rituals and spend more time with their loved ones.

“I can tell my own community and my family members there is a place for me,” Mr Raj said. “I can live in Canberra and take my body and soul away from here, which will be very helpful for my family members, too.”

But is cremation environmentally friendly? It often uses natural gas, and releases air pollutants; some claim that cremation can emit up to 400 kg of carbon dioxide.

Mr Shelley said the Gungahlin crematorium has been approved by the Environmental Protection Authority. It complies with both Australian and European standards. After-burners remove much of the extra gas, while the environmental side-effects depend on the casket. These days, many use low VOC (volatile organic compound)-emitting coffins.

Another publicly-owned crematorium will be built as part of Southern Memorial Park proposed to be constructed on Canberra’s southside.

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