Natural Burial

One woman’s quest to have a genuine natural burial

We have gradually complicated the simple act of burying a body

Over the past two hundred years, human beings have gradually complicated almost every aspect of the very simple process of burying a body in the earth. Embalming, concrete lined graves, metal caskets and elaborate timber coffins have gradually become the norm. In reality, almost all of these things are unnecessary, and spending a fortune on them contributes little to the dignity of a funeral.

Fortunately, in the UK in the 1990’s a modern form of natural burial re-emerged, and public interest has been growing ever since. The Australian Natural Burial Project defines natural burial as the;

“return of human remains, as directly as possible, to the earth while adhering to all legal, cultural and practical requirements. Non-embalmed remains are contained within a minimal-resource, bio-degradable coffin or shroud, and buried at the minimum legal depth to promote natural decomposition”.

Quite correctly, this definition refers to the need to observe regulations that are in place to ensure safety and public health. The use of refrigerated mortuary facilities, a secure coffin or shroud, and safe transportation methods are all common-sense practices that can be easily accommodated in a modern natural burial.

There remains, however, one substantial barrier to natural burial in Australia, and that is the high cost of grave sites in existing cemeteries. There is a fundamental flaw in the design and operation of traditional (and lawn) cemeteries. In simple terms, the never-ending maintenance costs exceed the once-off income available from the ‘sale’ of grave sites. Thus, cemetery fees steadily increase in a failing attempt to balance income against expenses.

A few cemeteries in Australia have set aside small areas referred to as ‘natural burial sections’. In some instances, these provide an improved landscaping option, however, they do not address the real issue of high costs. In any case, most people instinctively understand that the environmentally conscious approach of natural burial is out of place in a traditional cemetery setting.

What is needed to enable people to fully appreciate the natural burial process, is the existence of genuine natural burial grounds.

The Australian Natural Burial Project defines a natural burial ground as;

“a life-centred memorial place, not part of a traditional cemetery model, set aside exclusively for natural burial, and characterised by the existence or restoration of native vegetation. An eco-conscious natural burial ground has a finite active life cycle. Once the burial ground capacity is reached, operational maintenance is replaced by minimal-cost, landscape preservation practices, and the site remains a natural flora and fauna reserve.”

There are no headstones to disrupt the landscape

In a genuine natural burial ground there are no headstones to disrupt the landscape. Instead, as burials occur, graves are identified with small, permanent ground-level markers, and memorialised with individual native plantings. Over time these plantings transform the burial areas into lightly wooded, bushland habitat. The combination of permanent survey markers, computerised mapping and GPS technology ensures that every individual site can always be located.

The sanctity of interments in genuine natural burial grounds are secured by a Natural Burial Ground Trust, and the associated revegetation protected by enduring conservation covenants. Where traditional cemeteries are burdened with endless maintenance costs, and invariably fall to ruin, eco-restoration natural burial grounds provide an emotional haven, enrich the environment, and, in the fullness of time, become virtually self-maintaining.