Cemetery Revolutions – How Natural Burial in Australia Can Realign Perception

Eco-friendly alternatives to traditional burial are becoming increasingly popular today. Previously, we’ve discussed the environmental and health impacts of traditional burial which tends to involve embalming and the use of caskets. As we’ve outlined, cremation is resource-intensive and high in pollutants  For many, the question of whether this is sustainable practice moving forward, as climate change gathers momentum, is moving many towards considering green burial options. Opting for green embalming or to be buried in a simple shroud is just one piece of the puzzle. Green burial, as a concept, may just change the way we think of cemeteries altogether, driving a move to reinvent the use of burial space.a

Cemetery design has remained stagnant for a long time, especially in Australia and “the West”. Some may see the current design of cemeteries to be the only way of burying, the only mechanism of remembering the dead. This may apply both to burial and storing the remains of ashes, but perhaps it isn’t the design of cemeteries that has remained stagnant – our perspectives and collective mindset has remained languid. It may be that it’s because we view the dead as placid, unmoving, and motionless, that we’ve allowed our perspective towards the issue to mirror what we believe their state to be.

Stepping Stones in Redesign – Alternatives to Memorialisation

Yet, we’re currently amongst the living with responsibilities to the earth and the land on which we live, with which we interact, and with which we depend. Those who share our thoughts come with innovative, ground-breaking ideas of their own, like David Neustein of Other Architects and Kevin Hartley (Founder and CEO of Earth Funerals, leading the way for natural burial in Australia) believe that it’s part of our responsibility, in the industry, to view cemetery design as dynamic and sustainable. Those may be buzzwords for our time, but they’re highly relevant to changing expectations in a contemporary world dealing with alarming rates of climate change and shortage of burial spaces in urban areas, even before the current pandemic.

Other Architecs Burial Belt Project (http://otherarchitects.com/other-spaces#/burial-belt/)

Perspective is key, and according to Neustein, a shift towards viewing burial space as open space instead of dead land (we’re unsure if that pun was intended) is necessary. It would mean that we need to start considering the transition of cemeteries and ash memorialisation spaces towards a meaningful experience rather than a transactional one.

What does this mean for cemetery design? For Neustein and his team at Other Architects, the notion of time is intricately interwoven with reconceptualisation of how we see cemeteries. For Other Architects, it’s not simply about a green cemetery or a natural burial ground, but more about a new focus on contemporary issues and interests which also considers traditional design elements. In a cemetery landscape, tradition feels comforting for many. Tradition is inextricable from legacy for many, so how do the changing aspects of concern in society today – one where green burials are becoming an increasingly popular choice – come together with longstanding tradition? Neustein, like Chronicle, believes that this can be done by using the latest in technology as a tool for digital design strategies.

Let’s look at how these ideas can be used to theorise and develop possible solutions for current issues in the cemetery industry. Other Architects recently engaged with Northern Metropolitan Cemeteries of Sydney to address concerns that many have voiced to the institution. Ash memorialisation in cemeteries, currently, is felt to be monotonous and devoid of individual agency when interred in a letterbox or car park design. According to Neustein, it’s evident from the statistics – only 22% who opted for cremation chose for their ashes to remain in a cemetery setting. How, then, should people memorialise their lost loved ones? Is there anything else?

Digital and Traditional – Natural Burial in Australia Engaging with Time

While, admittedly, this discussion deals with the remains from cremation, it does offer a vantage point from which to look at cemetery design with green burial options in mind. Other Architects were blessed with an open brief – a blessing to some, a curse to others. For Neustein and his team, these briefs tend to fall under the former category. It wasn’t the space that was conceptualised differently – the team thought of memorialising differently. By reimagining ash memorialising in terms of the use of landscape clusters incorporating furniture and plants, interacting with the dead became less formal an affair, a more organic process. By using a suite of different memorial types that were lightweight but could also be anchored, relocation of these markers would be possible. This type of setting could resemble a crowd scene rather than the structured, letterbox format. It means that the bereaved would feel confident that their interred loved ones had their own space rather than becoming a number in a predetermined system.

What does this tell us about how to view the future of cemeteries? For one, we learn that we don’t necessarily need to retain memorialisation spaces in such a way that visitors are “able to see the system”, as Neustein puts it. By using a computational approach, where each memorial is tagged and located in space, it produces a record of its location, one which can be retrieved. This is analogous to what we do at Chronicle and is something that we can replicate or adapt in other settings; options for natural burial in Australia, for one.

When engaging with time as a medium, Other Architects showcase how this could be done with their finalist design bid for a 128 hectare greenfield site, which is the largest cemetery development in Victoria for 100 years. Other Architects were tasked with creating a design that meets projections of demand for traditional burial spaces but one that also allows for the flexibility and change in the future. This, in a nutshell, is how time-based design could be explained and is very relevant to changing attitudes towards burial with the rise of green embalming and green burial options.

From Rigid to Flowing

Again, the idea of an organic landscape is employed here. Neustein describes how an adaptable grave zone that efficiently houses a certain region of burial plots is the mode of delivery. Each zone, in turn, comes together to create a larger, more natural landscape. Design remaining dynamic over time is a priority, as they’d use a framework that can shift with time and demand. As opposed to planning an entire, massive cemetery in advance, the number of burial spaces and landscape area can adapt. Certainly, this would mean moving away from a traditional, fixed grid that many have become so used to, in favour of a framework that can evolve.

It’s this goal of prioritising less resource-intensive options of interment that leads to what may be Australia’s grandest speculative green cemetery idea to date – the Burial Belt. With the increasing scarcity of dependable land within Australia’s cities, there’s now an urgent shortage of burial space. Simultaneously, Australian cities are suffering from vegetation being stripped away at their edges due to land clearing. At its core, the Burial Belt seeks to address both these issues by providing replacement land by offering huge forests that double as burial spaces.

Earth Funerals x Other Architects – Theory Becomes Practical

https://earthfunerals.org/
http://otherarchitects.com/

As the forest moves over time, clearing in some areas and filling others, burial spaces will be evident at first but reclaimed by nature later. What is a natural burial? This may just be it in its most organic form. But how does this manifest practically?

Other Architects’ concepts become practical reality when Neustein meets Hartley of Earth Funerals – a meeting that both agree was serendipitous. At Bendoc Cemetery in Victoria, Australia, Hartley and Neustein worked together to design and create a functioning natural burial ground. As opposed to the rigid grid format, grave sites were winding and twisting to line the clearing of trees to create a walk through woodland. Currently, graves are placed next to clearly identifiable markers found in the landscape. Hartley believes that Bendoc Cemetery is, conceptually, something of a microcosm of Other Architect’s Burial belt. The natural burial graves, currently being mapped by the Chronicle team, represents a latency in time. There’s more space for burial as the forest moves with time, recycling space as the years pass.

For Hartley, moving towards dedicated green cemeteries is the ideal, with natural burial sections in cemeteries the “least worst option”. As it would still operate within a traditional cemetery ground framework, green burial sections would be constrained in the way they address both  human and environmental needs. Instead, moving towards dedicated natural burial grounds where manicured lawns are done away with, in favour of endemic grasses is part of the end goal. Hartley believes that a preference is growing in Australian communities towards these ‘whole of system’ ideas.

The Revolution Will Be Digitised

The revolution in cemetery design depends on the latest technology in order to map plots and spaces. Accurately mapping these spaces using digital means is essential as finding the resting place of a loved one is priority for the bereaved. Without digital mapping, questions about green burial cost or green funeral options would fall to the wayside if no compromise between traditional elements and evolving aspects of concern is reached. As we move towards freer arrangement patterns in the cemetery space as natural burial in Australia becomes a force for environmental improvement, we’re working on the solutions. Learn all you need to know about digital mapping for your cemetery with the best of our digital cemetery experts.