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WHAT IS NATURAL BURIAL GROUND?

A Natural Burial Ground is a designated piece of land set aside for the internment of bodies in the soil in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition but allows the body to be naturally recycled – buried in a simple cloth or casket of organic material. Traditionally, they are established in a bush setting with trees, grasslands, wildflowers and simple pathways – without headstones but discreetly labelled with a GPS marker for future location. Memoria and plaques to loved ones are commonly displayed at the entrance to the area – not on the burial site.

When you walk into a Natural Burial Ground it feels like a natural landscape – without human adornment – a place of peace, beauty and tranquility.

The first Natural Burial Ground to be created in Australia in 2008 was by Lismore City Council. Since then another 12 have been added with at least one in every state. In the UK the uptake has been even more enthusiastic – in fifteen years 270 Natural Burial Grounds have been established. In fact, there is a growing movement all around the world for ‘green burials’, in the many forms that they take, especially in Europe, USA and Canada.

Our lobby group started in Byron Shire because of the overall feeling that we could do death better – better than the current options of cremation or cemetery burial – to reduce our ecological footprint rather than adding to it – to complete the cycle of life and return from whence we came – and to be buried with our tribe, on this land, in this place that we have all come to love.

LISMORE (NSW) Bushland Cemetery.

WHY WE SHOULD BE CHOOSING NATURAL BURIALS OVER CREMATION AND MODERN BURIALS?

FIRST, A LITTLE STORY: Back in the 1980’s, when I was studying Horticulture at Ryde TAFE, we were the first group of students to be offered PERMACULTURE as an elective and I was fortunate enough to have its co-founder, Bill Mollison, as a lecturer. He said many profound things that resonated with me but this, more than anything, has stayed with me.

“If we returned all of our human waste, while we are alive, and our bodies to the ground when we die – we would go a long way to solving the earth’s soil infertility problems”

AFTER ALL, WE ARE ALL JUST THE STUFF OF STARS – the elements that make up our bodies are finite. It is a shame to waste them. Our bodies – a valuable resource, should be returned to the earth to continue the cycle of life.

OUR BODIES ARE 100% BIODEGRADABLE

(Apart from any surgical and dental additions – like pacemakers and fillings) – so I wear this t-shirt to emphasize this. It says on the back “too good to waste”!

We are about 80% water. In a Natural Burial the remaining 20% is readily broken down by soil microbes , and the nutrients will ultimately be taken up by plants with very little methane emissions. There is no waste, no residue – 100% recycling and a continuation into the future of being part of the living landscape.

This is just one of the many reasons why I, and other committed members of the Byron Shire community, were determined to lobby our Council to establish a Natural Burial Ground for all of us. We had a wonderful result last November when councillors unanimously voted in favour of of our proposal. Personally, I think it was our choir singing in favour of the motion that was the decider. (I am wondering if this is the first time a choir has sung in support of a motion?)

This is the song we sang to Council and sums up so beautifully what the Natural Burial movement is all about. Particularly pertinent at the time as we had smoke all around our town and bush fires raging up and down the country.

BREATHS by Sweet Honey in the Rock

Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings
Tis’ the ancestors’ breath
When the fire’s voice is heard
Tis’ the ancestor’s breath
In the voice of the waters
Ah — wsh Ah — wsh

Those who have died have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth

Listen more often to things than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings
Tis’ the ancestors’ breath
When the fire’s voice is heard
Tis’ the ancestor’s breath
In the voice of the waters
Ah — wsh Ah — wsh

Those who have did have never, never left
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman’s breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in our homes
They are with us in this crowd
The dead have a pact with the livin
g
The Columbarium at Mullumbimby cemetery. This is typical of cremation plaque memorials to loved ones. I think we can do better than this?

CREMATION: When I started researching this topic I became more and more disturbed by what I discovered – both in terms of the negative environmental impacts of cremations and the control that the funeral industry has over the whole process.

1. Currently, about 70% of people in Australia are cremated. (56% in Britain 26% in America). The decision to cremate is often personal but the rise in popularity can largely be put down to lack of choice. Cremations are cheaper than burials in a cemetery, sometimes by more than half . This is coupled with the fact that many cemeteries are already full, with no provision for more to be established – so burials are simply not an option. ** In addition ‘guidance’ is often given by the funeral company in the very emotional and traumatic time after a death. It is no coincidence that many crematoriums are owned by the funeral industry – as is the case with our local one, Melaleuca Station in Murwillumbah which is owned by a large, regional funeral company.

2. Each cremation emits about 160 kg of carbon into the atmosphere – the majority from burning the coffin, but also other toxic substances – in fact 46 different pollutants, like nitrous oxide and heavy metals. The European Environment Agencies Emission Inventory Guidebook states that crematoria contribute 0.2% of the total emissions of dioxins and furans – among the most environmentally destructive and long lasting pollutants *

3. The cremation process requires a considerable amount of energy to burn a body at the required temperature of between 760 and 1,150 degrees Celsius for 75 minutes. That is roughly the energy needs for a single person for one month. **

4. Sadly, the remains from a cremation are of no use to the environment either. The cinders are so inert that the soil in crematoria flower beds needs regular replacement to prevent the accumulating dead ash choking the life out of the plants. ***

5. Cremations not only leave a small ecological footprint – that person is gone, but also leaves a small psychological and social footprint. When a corpse is cremated and the ashes scattered, no physical focus of the deceased remains to be visited by those who loved them. Natural Burials give the opportunity of passive permanence that treads lightly in death. A place that is much more resonant of life than death – which is what you see and feel when you go to a cemetery dominated by the death aesthetic of headstones and lawn graves.

Natural Burial ground in Cheshire, South Lancashire, UK

A BIT OF HISTORY ABOUT CREMATIONS, BURIALS AND THE FUNERAL INDUSTRY.

The modern methods of burial and cremation are relatively new practices – along with the funeral industry. What was previously a family and community ritual with a simple burying of the dead on common or sacred ground, has now become monopolised and commercialised by the funeral industry.

For thousands of years early humans buried their dead in a simple shallow fashion – a Natural Burial. Cremations only emerged relatively late in human history. It first arose in the Western world when the Romans sought to mimic the dramatic fiery end of their great mythic heroes. Entombments soon replaced cremations thanks to the smart marketing of the elaborately carved sarcophagi (above ground stone tombs) and establishment of permanent graveyards and cemeteries.

One of three Roman sarcophagi, from about 150 BC, that lie abandoned in the street of the village of KASTRO on the Greek Island of SIFNOS

By the fifth century cremation had become almost completely obsolete following the spread of Christianity, with its associated belief in the resurrection of the dead – difficult to realize if your body has been burned to a cinder.

Cremation was revived in 1869 as an idea at the Medical International Congress of Florence, with a view to more safely disposing of bodies that were infectious or contaminated, and the first crematorium was built in the UK in 1885.

Mullumbimby Cemetery. Most modern gravestones are made from granite that has been quarried and shipped from China.

MODERN BURIALS: If you have never thought about this before you may be surprised and shocked by what I have ‘unearthed’

1. Potentially, cemetery burials have an even greater impact on the environment than cremations. Consider the various steps. Firstly – embalming the body – which is common practice in the funeral industry to preserve the body until the funeral. Embalming fluid uses an array of chemicals including methanol and formaldehyde – which are highly toxic to humans. About 800,000 tons of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid is buried annually in US graveyards. This is a known carcinogen that seeps into groundwater and the atmosphere. Embalming also has the effect for which it was intended – preventing the body from breaking down and being naturally recycled. *

2. Consider also the wooden coffin. This is usually lacquered, held together with toxic glue, plastic lined and adorned with metal fittings. It is estimated that ten acres of a typical cemetery contain nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel, 20,000 tons of concrete in burial vaults, and enough wood used in coffins to build 40 homes. The sealed caskets are buried so deep – beyond the sphere of most microbes in the soil – that very little recycling of the remains takes place. They just become a soil pollutant. All of this amounts to more toxic emissions into the air, soil and groundwater and globally – a huge carbon footprint. Also, consider this – globally, over 4 million acres of forest is required annually to build coffins and caskets. *

3. The cemetery itself has a huge carbon footprint and environmental impact. Firstly in the construction of roads, pathways and buildings – and their subsequent ongoing maintenance. Then there are the gardens; flowerbeds, roses, shrubs, hedges, trees and lawns – which require a large input in terms of ongoing maintenance – with labour, machinery, fuel, millions of litres of water annually and often chemical fertilizers and pesticides. *

The old part of Mullumbimby Cemetery. A magical spot on the edge of one of the largest and most ancient volcanic calderas in the world – covered in acres of concrete with no real connection to this place, this earth.

We talk endlessly about the benefits of sustainability and leaving a low carbon footprint during our lives. How about the option of leaving a low carbon footprint in our deaths with a Natural Burial?

Lismore Natural Burial Ground. The first in Australia and also important koala habitat

NATURAL BURIALS FAQ’S

Do I need to use a coffin? NO. Natural Burials follow the principles of internationally recognised ‘green burials’. Guidelines vary from place to place but you are generally encouraged to be buried in anything that is natural and biodegradable from a simple cotton shroud to caskets made from cardboard, bamboo, wool or cane. This ensures that the body is in close contact with the earth and that decomposition is quick and natural – and, importantly, does not pollute the site with toxic materials.

Can I have a headstone. NO. Traditionally Natural Burial sites have no formal headstones – for all the above reasons and to make the area as natural as possible with minimal maintenance. (A LITTLE STORY. Zenith Virago – who is a member of our local Natural Burial lobby group and an expert in all things to do with death and dying – recounted this to me after visiting a Natural Burial Ground in the UK. Following lobbying from the bereaved, the authorities bowed to pressure and allowed commemorative benches to be placed on the graves. Zenith said that the sight was quite bizarre. Instead of what would have been formerly -hundreds of headstones, there were now hundreds of benches). So no headstones but very accurate details of the grave boundary are recorded on a map and a GPS marker placed in situ. A copy of the map and GPS coordinates of the grave are provided on request.

What commemoration can I have? Most Natural Burial grounds around the world have somewhere to place commemorative plaques at the entrance to the site – not scattered throughout – usually on a large, locally hewn rock. Some of the Canadian ones use indigenous totem sculptures and one I saw in Japan had a beautiful temple-like archway.

Can I plant a tree on the grave? Normally NO. This is for two main reasons: 1. A Natural Burial Ground is a living ecosystem – typically with group plantings of trees, some understorey and large areas of meadow-like grassland. If every grave had a monument tree planted on it this would dramatically alter the vegetation pattern. The consequence of this is that you would very quickly have a dense forest with no space to bury any more bodies. 2. People often want to plant their loved ones’ favourite tree which may be totally inappropriate for the site. However, families are encouraged to attend community planting days where memorial trees can can be planted in appropriate areas.

Are NATURAL BURIALS cheaper than cemetery burials and cremations? Generally speaking YES. All initial costs and maintenance costs are cheaper but how much you spend entirely depends on choice of funeral company and services you opt for. For example, these are the current prices quoted for Lismore Memorial Gardens and EXCLUDES THE COST OF THE FUNERAL:

  • Cremation $1,143 PLUS the cost of NICHE ($2,463) and PLAQUE(?)
  • Lawn Cemetery Burial $4,521 PLUS the cost of HEADSTONE (?)
  • Natural Burial $2,240 PLUS the cost of PLAQUE

A Natural Burial is not about what you buy, it’s about what you don’t buy – it’s about simplicity and economy as much as it is about being environmentally conscious.

These FAQ’s and their answers are guidelines from Lismore Council Co-ordinator of cemeteries. They can be contacted at Lismore Memorial Gardens lmg@lismore.nsw.gov.au.

From my rotting body, flowers shall grow, and I am in them, and that is eternity Edvard Munch

REFERENCES *United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (2007) The Brundtland Report on Framing Sustainable Development. ** Report from Wirra Wonga Natural Burial Ground, South Australia (2016) www.aca.sagov.au and the Centennial Park Authority S.A. *** Natural Burials (2018) www.naturalburials.com (N.Z.)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I would like to thank the following people without whose help and encouragement this project would never have got this far. Ken Golding, Zenith Virago, Dave Rawlins, Linda Meade, Sasha Mainsbridge, Mary Hendry, Dr. John Stevens, Jeanette Martin, Michael Lyon, Simon Richardson, Cate Coorey, Sarah Ndiaye, Duncan Dey, Biggest Little Town Choir and my patient sounding board, Michael Hart.