The hydrogeological context of cemetery operations and planning in Australia

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The purpose of this research has been to evaluate the potential contamination impact of cemeteries on groundwater. A comprehensive study of the groundwaters in the unsaturated and saturated zones of nine Australian cemeteries has been made, with most sampling between October 1996 and August 1998. Periodic sampling from 83 wells or ponds yielded 305 complete samples which were tested for at least 38 inorganic and 5 bacterial analytes. Other, partially complete samples were used for metals and bacterial analyses. The soils of all sites were tested for a range of analytes that might reflect or affect the presence of human decomposition products. The within-cemetery sampling has allowed inorganic chemical characterisation of cemetery groundwaters to an amount of detail not previously attained. In the past 100 years there have been fewer than 12 sampling-based studies published on any of these matters. The forms of nitrogen feature most prominently, but three groupings of analytes are recognised as major contributors, including Na, Mg, Sr, Cl, SO4 and forms of P; these outcomes are similar in each hydrogeological zone. This study is unique in that it has a broad focus on the environmental impacts in respect of bacterial presence and transmission, heavy metals and nutrients, and has put these into the context of cemetery management and operational practices. Cemetery functions are best understood conceptually as a special kind of landfill but they are strongly influenced by the temporal and spatial variability of cemetery practices. Human decomposition mechanisms and products are considered in detail. This information was used to model the impacts for a large municipal cemetery over a twenty year time-frame. The previously unquantified relationship of cemetery proximity to drinking water wells has been determined and guiding principles for cemetery location and operation have been prepared including separation distances from watertables and specification of buffer zones in different hydrogeological settings. The related issue of the disposition of cremated remains is also considered and guidelines developed for scattering of these within buffer zones. The amounts of decomposition products leaving cemeteries are very small, and well sited and managed cemeteries have a low impact on the environment. Cemeteries should not be regarded as a detrimental landuse and the in-soil interment of human remains and re-use of graves are sustainable activities. However, almost all cemeteries have some potential for pollution. The most serious situation is the escape of pathogenic bacteria or viruses into the environment at large. The answer to the question as to ‘whether any one cemetery pollutes?’ depends on the location and operation of the site in adherence to the affecting parameters. The question can only be resolved by a comprehensive geoscientific investigation with a focus on the hydrogeological setting. Such assessment needs to consider the effects if the practices and/or usage patterns within the cemetery change, or if there are unaccounted changes in impacting natural phenomena like floods.
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