NSW reaps $29 million from graveyard matters

Burial costs: Rookwood, the largest cemetery in the southern hemisphere, is forecast to run out of space in the next 40 years. It had gross sales of $15.9 million. Photo: Janie Barrett
Burial costs: Rookwood, the largest cemetery in the southern hemisphere, is forecast to run out of space in the next 40 years. It had gross sales of $15.9 million. Photo: Janie Barrett

Death is big business. Sales of graves, wall niches and other services required to bury the dead or dispose of ashes generated profits of $29 million, including $12 million from Rookwood - for the NSW government in the last financial year.

But new NSW government legislation, which required crown cemeteries to report their finances for the first time, lifts the lid on the Crown cemeteries' finances.

Accounts now being finalised show these government-owned cemeteries had turnover of $86 million, and $426 million in assets, including shares and other investments, with liabilities of $32.4 million.

About half of the 49,000 people who die every year in NSW are buried in crown cemeteries, although they represent only a quarter of all cemeteries.

Rookwood, the largest cemetery in the southern hemisphere, generated $15.9 million in gross sales to June 30, said Bob Wilson, the chairman of the Rookwood General Cemeteries Reserve Trust.

The audited accounts being finalised for the state's new cemeteries and crematoriums board show sales of cemetery plots and memorial niches generated net profit of about $12 million on $15.9 million in sales, he said. Rookwood buried about 2200 people last year, with each death generating about $7300 in sales.

Rookwood also has $73 million in retained earnings, which Mr Wilson said was not enough.

An audit of Rookwood's needs showed it needs $150 million to look after graves in perpetuity, and upgrade the cemetery to provide additional burial space and buy new land as space runs out as forecast within the next 30 to 40 years.

Mr Wilson said he had been appalled by the lack of governance and the financial practices at Rookwood when he took over. Records were found in sheds, the information technology systems were archaic, and money had been invested in bad shares rather than in upkeep of the cemetery.

''It would make your hair turn,'' he said. ''Look, we are taking $15 million a year from bereaved relatives and friends. Unless that is managed properly, we have just breached the trust that you'd expect from a responsible cemetery and I don't think it has been managed properly.''

Since his appointment, for example, the new board and management had recovered more than $1.4 million in bad debts that the former management had failed to pursue and sold off nearly $6 million in ''dog'' shares that had failed for many years. Much of that money had been reinvested and was now outperforming the ASX200 index.

A report into the cemetery's operations, which was recently handed to the government and the Independent Commission Against Crime, did not find any evidence of corruption, he said. ''We have had to initiate a series of audits across cemetery and they are continuing.

''It has shown lot of controls were very loose, and that a lot of the assets had deteriorated [including vehicles and lifting gear]."

According to the chief executive of the newly amalgamated Northern Suburbs Group of Crown cemeteries, Pauline Tritton, these new governance procedures were the most important part of the reforms. ''Most of us have heard of examples of bad business practices and cemeteries operating like 'fiefdoms' without the rigid financial and ethical protocols in place similar to normal businesses,'' she said.