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Natural Burial, Your Final Earthly Gift

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In 2023 the Geeveston Progress Association opened up this patch of land pictured here, to natural burial. A local community volunteer run cemetery, for the community, by the community. It is an exciting step for Tasmania, being the first space set aside in a cemetery for natural burial in the state.

I have been looking at natural burial for a long time. In 2017 my family and I traveled to the UK and spent time visiting many natural burial grounds and meeting with cemetery managements and funeral directors. In 2019 I completed a Churchill Fellowship to continue looking at it, and I expanded the scope. It was 10 weeks, 6 countries, 21 flights, 4 train journeys, 47 interviews, 2 conference, 3 chauffeurs, 4 guided tours, 2 interpreters, scores of death conversations and too many cemeteries to count. Then, in the same year, I attended the Tasmanian Palliative Care Conference and there I saw a presentation from the NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation, who delivered us the following projections for Australia by the year 2056 (taken from ABS data):

  • The Death Rate will more than double to 320,000 pa
    • 51% of all deaths will be those aged 80+
    • There will be a 400% increase in the number of people over the age of 85

The figures vary from then to now, but they have not really changed.

Globally, conversations are well underway about this trend, the wave of death which is coming in the western world. There are medical and end of life professionals and academics alike all discussing the issues we will soon be facing and moreover, they are being engaged by both private industry and government to consider and formulate a response as to how the medical communities, government services and the broader health sector will cope/need to change. In recent times we have had various Doctors, Nurses and Palliative Care Physicians, specialist and general, come out in support of the notion that dying and death, grief and loss are not just medical events, they are social issues that have medical components.

One big gap here in talking of the increased number of deaths is somewhat of an elephant in the room; namely, what are we going to do with all of the bodies of those who die? And how can we handle this in an ethical and environmentally friendly way that reduces the current financial burden of funeral and ceremony and at the same time allows for improved grief and bereavement outcomes for families.

There are other new ways of approaching body disposal around the world and there are some exciting things are happening. Some of these methods have found their way into public use and we will write about them as well, many more of them are still in the research and development phase but have succeeded in capturing the public’s attention. We have always had the option of natural burial. Natural Burial is arguably the most environmentally friendly way of dealing with the body of a deceased person. It is better for the environment than flame cremation, can use less natural resources than alkaline hydrolysis, has far better environmental outcomes than traditional burial. Natural burial is available to us both in cemeteries and in some cases on private land in Tasmania and many other places in Australia.

Presently, we don’t have a specifically dedicated natural burial ground in Australia but more and more we are finding existing cemeteries setting land aside for dedicated natural burial sections in their grounds. Just like Geeveston. In 2020 the Natural Death Advocacy Network found around 14, in 2023 there was around 29. People are working hard on bringing this to Australia and we are not far away from a cemetery that exists only to bury the dead in a natural and sustainable way. They are all over the UK and USA and Australia IS edging ever closer to having our own here as well.

The UK has over 100 sites claiming to be natural burial sites, and many of them are accredited as such. The UK Natural Death Centre Charity run the accreditation. In the USA there are similarly large numbers of natural burial sites and the accreditation for them is run through the Green Burial Council.

It is worth noting that in Australia, some of the existing natural burial areas are called such for their bush style location rather than the natural way they allow burials to take place. Of most concern is the depth of the graves dug in these areas and what checks and balances they have in place to ensure what goes into the ground is in fact all natural. These are good questions to ask if you are considering burial in one of those areas.

In 2023 the Natural Death Advocacy Network launched a new branch of membership, setting in place standards and codes of conduct for ethical and authentic operations. This is an important step for Australia, these standards already exist in the UK and the USA.

So, what is a natural burial?

A natural burial is one that occurs in a shallow depth grave. The deeper you lay a deceased body in the earth, the slower the decomposition becomes and the less the earth receives the nutrients from the remains. Tasmanian legislation states that the human remains need to be completely covered in soil, one meter deep at its shallowest point. Legislation changes from State to State in Australia but we know in the UK this requirement is the same. This is why you will often see graves mounded up above the top of the ground, to still allow a meter of soil while burying the body at an optimal depth. Even without this, digging a full 1.2-1.3 metres deep allows the ground above the grave to be flat. This still allows for a much faster decomposition because the soil is warmer higher up, there is aeration and oxygen flow and of course it has more insect and bacteria life within it.

But it’s not all about depth. With a natural burial, you must also consider –

  • There should be no prior chemical treatments. This refers to both the chemical washes and preparations done as standard practice in most funeral homes and to the process of temporary preservation and embalming. There are two main methods of preservation. Temporary preservation is where every major organ in the body of the deceased person is pierced and a setting agent introduced to slow the decomposition. More long-term preservation is achieved by embalming, a process through which all the blood is pumped out of the deceased person and replaced with a fluid that significantly slows the rate of decomposition.
  • What the body is wearing – only natural fibers can be on the body. That goes for clothing, shoes, hair ties, jewellery – everything. Most metals come from the earth and are permitted to return to the earth with a deceased person so things like gold tooth fillings or wedding rings are most often allowed. Plastic shoes are out as are rubber soles.
  • Coffin or shroud? You do not need a coffin and in natural burial it is not always the best option anyway. Some natural burial grounds would prefer you did not use one, some do make it a requirement, citing the added advantage of the oxygen in the coffin aiding the decomposition process. If you do choose to use a coffin, it needs to be of natural and bio-degradable materials. Ideally, no screws. Certainly, no non-biodegradable plastic. There are some wonderful wicker, seagrass and bamboo coffins available and, local to Tasmania, a natural recycled paper coffin. Burial ground management may want to see the coffin before they agree to the burial because the integrity of what goes into the earth is very important for the process of natural burial. Shrouds are commonly used to cover a deceased person, and this is the best way to achieve the optimal goals for natural burial. Bodies should be wrapped in ideally silk or wool. They are both protein-based fibers and will decompose at the same rate as a body. Plant based materials such as cotton will take longer. The one exception is hemp which is the fastest to decompose of them all and a fantastic option. Note – in Tasmania the Director of Public Health has stated that a shroud is considered to be four layers of material.
  • You are limited by what you can put inside a coffin or shroud. Things made of plastic for example are not permitted while handwritten notes, letters and drawings are. Families and communities can spend days and weeks however decorating a burial shroud. It can be quite a cathartic, healing and bonding experience and it is a wonderful way to involve many people, giving them a sense of agency and ownership and the feeling of having contributed to the after-death care of the person through this simple gesture.
  • Natural burials are shallow depth and therefore single graves. You can have them side by side but no two deceased persons can share the one grave plot. There is a movement in the natural burial space towards the idea of reusing graves. Natural burial is particularly well designed for this as the point of natural burial essentially is to return the nutrients of the body to the earth in a relatively short timeframe. It also means that you don’t need to keep finding new land for body burials. Current Tasmanian legislation is such that the possibility of this remains to be seen. It is worth noting that even though it is one body per plot, the plots are often still a financially viable alternative to traditional cemeteries.

Much research has gone into the best possible preparation and filling in of natural burial graves to gain the optimal conditions for timely decomposition. Dr. Billy Campbell from Ramsey Creek Nature Preserve, a place I was lucky enough to visit as a part of my Churchill Fellowship, has done a lot of work for over a decade, refining the best way to conduct natural burial. At Ramsey Creek, plots are dug 3-3.5 feet deep and wooden chocks are used to keep the casket/body off the ground in the grave to allow for aeration. Vegetative matter is used to line the bottom of the graves. Any tree roots inside the grave are pinned down with a u-shaped pin, they do not cut them. He has developed a method of using Burial Sticks. Burial sticks are dry limbs from the forest floor and can contain the spores of fungi which help as well. They are placed below and above the body allow for oxygen to circulate which aids decomposition and helps against the formation of adipocere (a waxy substance that can form in the presence of much body fat, slowing the decomposition process). They also assist aeration, allow channels for water and nutrient transport and promote new root growth. Finally, the introduction of organic vegetative material to graves, such as straw, pine straw, ferns and flowers, provide carbon to balance the high nitrogen levels during decomposition which add to the effectiveness of the sticks.

When it comes to marking the grave sites in a natural burial ground it is very much up to the policy of the management. Some will allow a stone local to the area or a small plaque, others will not. Some will provide you with a GPS coordinate, some will not. One lovely idea from the UK was to create a roll of honour at the entrance, so while the individual graves were not marked, the entire natural ground became that person’s legacy to the generations to come.

Natural burial is a responsible, sustainable and financially viable alternative to conventional burial and has a much greater environmental benefit than flame cremation. There is as much variation in the conducting of a natural burial as there is in any other end of life choice, and similarly, people are often unaware of the choices that are theirs to make. By being proactive, by becoming informed and raising your own levels of death literacy, you will find there is much more agency and choice in end of life than you may have thought  which is important if you intend for your last act on this earth to be making your corpse a final value adding gift to the earth thereby returning the elements that made your body back to the earth that you borrowed them from.

If you would like more information about this or anything else, please feel free to reach out.

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