Sites of historical, social, architectural and botanical significance, Melbourne's cemeteries have been influenced by both European and American burial trends with respect to layout and memorial designs. Established in association with particular churches, or as a result of public meetings of concerned citizens, most were public amenities in the care of government-appointed trustees.
The first burials for the small community of Melbourne took place from 1836 on the southern slopes of the Flagstaff Hill, now marked by a memorial erected in 1871. There were between six and ten burials there before it became apparent that a new cemetery was required to meet the needs of the increasing population. The Old Melbourne Cemetery on the present Queen Victoria Market site was opened in 1837. Many pioneers, such as John Batman, were interred there, with upright gravestones carved in simple, basic shapes with a minimum of decoration. Some memorials were made of wood; others were chiselled from imported stone from Hobart. Some churchyard cemeteries were established from the 1830s, two of which are St Andrew's, Brighton (1844), and St Katherine's (now St Helena), Greensborough (c. 1856).
During the 19th century, across the Western world such older-style cemeteries, which had become overcrowded and insanitary, were replaced by modern cemeteries modelled on botanical gardens. These new cemeteries featured curved pathways, chapels, gate lodges, rest pavilions and imposing evergreen plantings, such as cypress and pine trees, which had symbolic meaning. They were vast, divided into sectors and plots and characterised by a wide variety of monuments, many of which were mass-produced at greatly reduced cost. Representing many different styles and tastes, monuments frequently had arched or gabled tops, columns, corbels, pedestals, buttresses, draped urns, obelisks, Celtic crosses, wrought-iron surrounds, angels and other religious symbolism. The Melbourne General Cemetery, which opened in June 1853 when Melbourne was experiencing rapid population growth due to the gold rush, was the first of this new type of burial ground in Victoria. It is a repository of much of the city's history. The first male buried there was John Alexander Burnett, chief clerk to the mercantile firm of Dalgety, Borradale & Co., and the first female interment was Jane Bell. The cemetery's well-known monuments include those to Burke and Wills, Sir Redmond Barry, Sir Charles Hotham, W.J.T. Clarke, Marcus Clarke, Walter Lindrum, and an unusual memorial to Elvis Presley, which is a place of pilgrimage for the singer's fans.
In 1854 an Act for the Establishment and Management of Cemeteries in the Colony of Victoria was passed. The government had the power to appoint and remove trustees and to lend or pay money for the establishment and management of cemeteries. The trustees were charged with a range of responsibilities: to erect structures and avenues; to impose rules and regulations to manage and protect the cemeteries; to allow ministers of religion free access and religious denominations to build mortuary chapels; to keep accounts and statements; and to veto and remove inappropriate vaults and monuments.
In the 19th century the rituals of death were a part of everyday life. Most people died at home and believed in an afterlife. Cemeteries were not considered morbid, but were really a celebration of life. Modelled on public parks, they were popular venues for family outings. Metropolitan cemeteries such as St Kilda (1855), Williamstown (1858), Boroondara (Kew, 1859) and Box Hill (1873) were established at a distance from the more densely settled areas and had open perspectives and healthy breezes, reflecting the fondness of the bourgeoisie for an appropriate commemoration of their status after death. St Kilda adopted a modified grid-like layout contrasting with the landscaped, romantic garden layout of Boroondara. North of the Yarra, Coburg
Cemetery (1862) is a hillside burial ground revealing the values of workers and labour history.
In the 20th century burial grounds were dramatically transformed, reflecting a change in public attitudes towards death. The general trend was to be as discreet as possible, evident in the creation of lawn cemeteries and memorial parks, which placed great emphasis on the landscape, devoid of elaborate headstones and individually enclosed plots, and featuring standard plaques on grass. These new cemeteries were inspired by developments in overseas cemetery design, especially in the United States. They reflected both the decline in religious belief and the growing popularity of cremation, though they also feature many well-kept marble monuments and an extravagant religious symbolism favoured by many European ethnic groups. These tensions are displayed in the Necropolis Springvale Cemetery and crematoria and Fawkner Crematorium and Memorial Park, established in the early 1900s to meet the needs of the expanding city following the closure of the Melbourne General Cemetery. The development of the railway system stimulated the establishment of these larger cemeteries at a significant distance from the main centres of population. A branch line entered the Springvale grounds, and a line ran through the Fawkner enclosure. But the special mortuary stations planned for Melbourne did not eventuate. The Fawkner cemetery (1906) was extensively landscaped, adopted modern cemetery management practices, and offered such facilities as a tea-room and flower shop within the grounds.
Heritage experts believe that many cemeteries in Melbourne are inadequately funded and deteriorating rapidly, and growing community interest in the value of cemeteries has led to calls for government action. The Cemeteries and Crematoria Act 2003 introduced changes to the way cemeteries are operated and managed.