A life of dedication to Melbourne's dead

·3-min read

Beneath lofty monuments and among hundreds of roses, Barry Dawson is the first to admit a life surrounded by death isn't for everyone.

He started working as a gardener at Melbourne's Fawkner cemetery aged 19, and five years later traded shears for a shovel to become a gravedigger.

It was back-breaking toil, taking up to a day for one person to manually heave the earth from a single plot.

Nowadays, the bulk of the work is done by machine excavators in about half an hour - but some things about the job haven't changed, even since the 1980s.

"Some people say, 'oh God' or 'that's a bit scary'," Mr Dawson said.

"I just say back to them that I'm used to it."

Mr Dawson is now 61 and will mark 42 years of cemetery service mainly across Melbourne's north in September.

Rather than making him immune to sadness, the job has given him an appreciation for the preciousness of life.

He feels parents' pain when they have to bury children and thinks about his own three daughters, now in their 20s and 30s.

When people are buried without anyone present, staff stand by their grave and take a moment to acknowledge their life.

Gravediggers turn off their machinery when families come to mourn and Mr Dawson always lends an ear to anyone looking to chat while he's on the job.

He recalls how his own mother's death in 2020 compounded his empathy.

"There's nothing you can do, really - life goes on and you've just gotta make the most of it," he said.

"You care for all of the families.

"The sad ones are stillborn babies and young kids ... you think how lucky you are with your own kids."

Over the years, his workload has levelled out to digging about 15 graves a day alongside a small crew but he'll occasionally help maintain cemetery grounds.

COVID-19 did not bring a major change in his work aside from safety measures but he says there has been a steady decline in people opting for burials over cremations.

Melbourne's cemeteries are also running out of space, with about 11,000 graves and mausoleum crypts available across the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust's 19 sites.

That's down from 19,000 in 2015, according to the Trust's data.

The Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust has over 3600 graves and crypts available across nine cemeteries.

Both have new sites in the works, including at Harkness in Melbourne's west, where about 100,000 graves are expected to be dug through the next century.

The Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust is also planning another 10,000 graves at its existing cemeteries over the next two years.

Mr Dawson says most people wouldn't like grave digging - it takes a particular type of person.

For him, though, the work offers security and a feeling of community among colleagues he's known for decades.

"It does give you a sense of importance - you're doing a good job," he said.

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