The trend of the green/natural burial is taking root. Simply put, when you pass, your body goes back to nature. However, it far more scientific than it seems.
There’s no denying it. As one of sixteenth-century literature’s happiest chaps, Hamlet, would have it: we will all “shuffle off this mortal coil” sooner or later. Whether that shuffling sees your redundant body embalmed, buried, filed away in a crypt, cremated or hung out on the cliff-tops to be consumed by carrion-eaters all depends on the culture and era in which you live (or lived). In Western cultures today a backlash against conventional funeral practices has seen the rise of natural or “green” burials. Shuffling off, apparently, now has an eco-conscience.
A natural burial eschews many of the energy and material wastage aspects of the old ways and sees your redundant body planted a mere metre into the ground to allow the natural aerobic forces of the soil to decompose your body. No flash mahogany-timbered coffin with expensive metal adornments for you – no, you will be accompanied into the verdant afterlife in simple cardboard, wicker, seagrass or fabric coffin, all of which will decompose as quickly and naturally as you do, leaving no residue in the soil. For the budget-conscious, you can even buy your own cardboard coffin from Costco stores. Treated as a blank canvas, all manner or inspirational graffiti could adorn your bio-degradable vessel. The aim is to let nature “take back” your body and at the same time support the ecological stabilisation of the burial sites with a return to natural flora and fauna communities.
Should you be worried about all those toxic heavy metals your body has absorbed over a lifetime of chewing your false acrylic nails and swallowing too much teeth-whitener, you may like to sign up to Jae Rhim Lee’s Decompiculture Society. Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit (aka the Mushroom Death Suit) might just be right for you. Along with fellow American inventor Mike Ma, Lee came up with the idea for a fungus that would digest your body and detoxify all the nasties you’d absorbed over your lifetime, thereby ensuring a clean and guilt-free decomposition back into Mother Earth. Check out Jae on her TED talk – it’s truly fascinating:
The ultimate and final garden bed for you will be in a natural burial site where native grasses, trees and shrubs will be allowed to grow over you. Little more than a series of satellite coordinates will identify the location of your plot, though some plots are identifiable with natural rocks or trees. Lismore was the first town in NSW to launch a natural burial site in 2008 with Sydney Natural Burial Park at Kemps Creek following more recently. Refreshingly, governments and health authorities in Australia have responded comparatively quickly to enable natural burials to occur; in the spirit of collaborative consumerism, more choices are being legalised to enable individuals, their families and communities to have greater control over their ultimate recycling strategies.
Have we come full circle in our funeral practices? Many cultures that embrace their close and inalienable link with the natural environment and have not alienated death from the life cycle have practised natural burials for millennia. From Pacific Islanders to Tibetan Buddhists to the Zoroastrians of Iran and India, these people have been hanging out their dearly departed in tree-tops and mountain ledges, in tepees and on garden tables, and in sinking canoes and drifting rafts, to allow sun, wind, rain and feeders to weather away the remains and return the body to the environment.
Even in Australia, we are not as removed from these practices as we may think. Indigenous Australians followed natural decomposition practices and our early colonial settlers buried their dead in shallow graves in bushland to encourage rapid decomposition of the body.
Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit (aka the Mushroom Death Suit) might just be for you: a fungus that will digest your body and detoxify all the nasties you’d absorbed over your lifetime, ensuring a clean and guilt-free decomposition back into Mother Earth.
In Australia, changing social values and beliefs, as well as financial constraints, have seen cremations exceed burials since 1963 when the Catholic Church conceded to the use of cremation if a traditional burial was not possible. Increasing concern for the environmental impact of traditional funeral practices, and arguably disenchantment with the increasing commercialisation of the funeral industry (the ASX-listed InvoCare owns the majority of the multi-million dollar funeral industry businesses in Australia) are now supporting the trend towards the natural burials.
But I think there’s more to it than wanting to reduce our carbon footprint and give the flick to the industrialised funeral system. Maybe there is a spiritual need of sorts, wherein we can take some comfort in feeling that we ultimately get to re-connect with the environment that enabled our species to have a life in the very first place. Closing the loop? Or simply the satisfaction of making some damned fine compost?