Cemetery restoration honours cultural diversity

The Shire of Christmas Island has been awarded the ‘Peter MacLean Award’ by the Cemetery and Crematorium Association WA, for the Christmas Island Cemeteries Restoration Project.

Chief Executive Officer, Kelvin Matthews, said the award, “is wonderful news and recognition for the hard work by the Shire in recognising the value of the cemeteries on the island to the community.”

An Australian Commonwealth territory since 1958, Christmas Island had no systems in place to manage its five heritage-listed cemeteries – one Islamic, two European and two Chinese – until 2009, when the Shire of Christmas Island (SOCI) formally adopted the Heritage Cemeteries Management Plan, Report and Recommendations prepared by Helene Bartleson, Heritage Consultant and Advisor to the Shire of Christmas Island.

Ms Bartleson brought 38 years experience as an educator in languages, cultures and history, to the project, including 25 of them as a researcher and writer on heritage cemeteries. Mr Matthews came as CEO in 2010 with 35 years’ experience in local government administration, particularly in small, culturally diverse communities where services and supplies are far away.

The pair both appreciated the central role of cemeteries in the historic, social, cultural and religious fabric of such communities. The quality outcomes achieved from this project are the result of their teamwork, and the strong relationships built with local Christmas Island community through shared learning experiences.

Data gathered through three years of systematically-documented restoration work by qualified stonemasons, improved communications systems, community and staff training and school-based activities, has been applied in multiple ways. The island now has its first gazetted Cemeteries Local Laws, a Burial Register, multi-lingual forms and info brochures.

Importantly, the cemeteries are also heritage tourism-ready with parking.  Pathways, interpretive signage and a searchable cemeteries’ website are also close to completion.

The project’s most innovative aspect is the cultural mapping, used to highlight features of the Islamic cemetery and the Island’s two rare examples of traditional Chinese cemeteries, laid out according to the feng-shui principles of the ancient Book of Burial (Guo Pu–276–324). This work has potential value for other cemeteries in mainland Australia and elsewhere.  

The small, remote and culturally unique community of Christmas Island can now take pride in the success of this project that has preserved their cemeteries for future generations.

In 2016, the 3-stage implementation plan will be applied through a Memorandum Of Understanding between the Shire and the National Trust of Western Australia to document restoration of the island’s 22 heritage-listed Chinese temples and shrines, which have strong cultural and religious links to the cemeteries.