Natural Earth Burials: Should our last decision be environmental?

Ethical talk about the dead usually focuses on rights. The rights of the dead to have their last wishes carried out, and their bodies treated with respect.

But as the baby-boomers approach old age, this is set to change. Soon, deaths will outnumber births in this country. When they do, we shall come face-to-face with our least favourite topic-what to do with our bodies when we die.

Current trends are unsustainable. City cemeteries are chockers, forcing the 30 per cent of us still choosing burial to be interred out of town, or to lease a space for thirt-odd years closer to home that may be on top of an ossuary full of older bones. Those choosing cremation will hardly fare better, with the scarcity of memorial sites and the price of leasing them also on the rise.

Then there’s the environmental costs. Cremation costs us, and the earth, less. A 2007 report by consulting firm GHB found that while cremation emitted four times as much CO2 on the day as burial, factoring in the cost of maintaining cemeteries saw cremation triumph as the superior environmental option.

Not that either option is anything to write home to mother about. The average car produces 4.5 tons of carbon every year, making the emissions load of each burial the equivalent of 38 cars, and that of cremation only slightly less.

Natural earth burials cost the same as cremation, but are far easier on the earth. The untreated body is wrapped in shroud or unlined pine box and buried with a microchip or magnet. Relatives wanting to return to the site put its coordinates into a GPS device provided by those managing the site.

The idea, to quote ABC journalist Ian Townshend, is to turn your body into “food for [a] tree” in what will eventually become a forest of souls: a natural memorial ground developed by the gradual re-vegetation of suitable space. It’s an idea that’s time may have come. In the UK, where natural burial has been an option for a decade, 35 per cent want to approach perpetuity this way.

The founder of White Knight Funerals, one of the few operators offering natural earth burials, puts the moral case for choosing them baldly. “Both cremation and traditional burial are…environmentally irresponsible. It is one thing to consume to support human life, but…to treat our dead in such a way that they continue to consume post mortem is absurd.”

In other words, we are selfish to choose traditional burial or cremation when a better choice exists, and our families are morally irresponsible to let us.

I like the idea of natural burials, but am not quite convinced. Yes, large headstones may be over the top, but an unmarked grave seems extreme in the other direction, denying the departed and those who grieve for her the individualization that dignifies and recognises loss. And what of the history and comfort provided by traditional cemeteries? I spent many angst-ridden years walking through the one near my university, gaining perspective through the reading of the trials of others as revealed by their headstones (wives lost to childbirth, children to disease, whole townships to famine). What will be lost from our history if memorialisation of the dead becomes impermanent? Memorial kiosks are the proposed solution, but what happens when it all-both trees and kiosk-go up in smoke courtesy of a passing bushfire?

It’s something to think about for sure, but natural burial has some way to go.

Publication history

Natural Earth Burials: Should our last decision be environmental?  Sun-Herald (Sydney)