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.

Four Tales of Digitising Australian Cemeteries in Victoria

Map and records search: map.chronicle.rip

  • Digitalised cemetery records
  • Physical survey of the cemetery grounds
  • Interactive online cemetery map
  • 24/7 online access to plot/cemetery information
  • Customised database management solutions delivered at a highly affordable price

Cemeteries and the digital realm seem like two contrasting ideas, but useful digital innovation can be applied across industries. Yes, the cemetery industry is one where things move a tad slower than elsewhere, but meaningful, practical change should be adapted where possible.

For cemetery management, record-keeping and accurate mapping are a priority, both for legacy and for profitability of the cemetery as a business. This is where digital record-keeping and mapping comes in, saving time and frustration, and helping communities preserve their histories. Yet, going digital is a broad term and doesn’t always mean more accurate or efficient mapping and record-keeping. Certain programmes, like Excel, have been used widely but come with a host of issues since they weren’t built for the unique niche of cemetery management. For some, knowing where to start when going digital can be incredibly confusing.

Nothing’s Impossible

YouTube tutorials or explanatory articles don’t really apply to your cemetery’s unique context and issues. Your expansion projects, funding concerns, operational resources (including manpower) and even the thought of a feasibility study could lead you to abandon the idea altogether.

It shouldn’t. Have a look at some of the latest projects we’ve assisted with in digitising Australian cemeteries in Victoria. These offer a detailed picture of varied cemeteries, their differing operations, and what going digital meant for them in the long-term. Each cemetery has their own, specific goals, circumstances, and status, but all have successfully gone digital (or are well on their way). If funding is an obstacle for your cemetery, some of these cases illustrate how Chronicle has assisted in procuring grants to complete cemetery digitising projects from Australia’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in Victoria.

Visions of Expansion - Warrnambool Cemetery

Arguably one of the most renowned institutions of its kind in Victoria, Warrnambool Cemetery was one of our larger projects. With a maximum of 200 interments per year, this cemetery has inevitably found the need to extend, which is why it now consists of two cemeteries; Tooram Memorial Park being the new expansion located nearby.

Getting Warrnambool Cemetery and Sheryl – Chairperson of the Trust – on board was no quick task. In fact, it took over a year for them to join Chronicle. For a large institution like Warrnambool Cemetery who were further expanding to 55-hectare Tooram overlooking the seaside, they needed to make the right decision for the long term. Understandably so, since Tooram is expected to serve them for the next century and a half. Sheryl sought a cemetery management system that incorporated digital mapping.

With their plans for the future and a responsibility to their community, their standards were high. Before Chronicle, they ran a semi-manual management system. Excel record-keeping, combined with their three-year run on dated software that functioned as an online burial web search didn’t do the trick for them – their records were not really being managed. For a notable local institution, Warrnambool Cemetery wanted to be at the forefront of digitising Australian cemeteries in Victoria.

But how would they create backups of current Excel records? What about the cost? Other trustees had raised their eyebrows at first, uninterested, after our first proposal in October of 2020.

Requirements, Competition & Good Conversation

Chronicle was not the only choice – other cemetery software was also in the running to win Warrnambool’s hand. But our mapping expertise, combined with our desire to understand their specific needs in full – both the cemetery’s history, current context, and future plans, helped Warrnambool make their choice. It’s a conversation that took more than a year for good reason.

Even while they considered counter offers, we stayed at Warrnambool’s side and listened to their specific needs and helped to tailor a solution for them. After joining our webinars in November 2020 and January 2021, Sheryl and Warrnambool grew in confidence towards us.

We shook on it and thus began a working partnership as we brought Warrnambool onboard. The bulk of our work involved helping Sheryl and her team by migrating all their old data over to Chronicle. The activity was migration-heavy; data and records from multiple sources were collated, sorted, and reorganised onto our far more intuitive, dynamic platform.

For us, the case of Warrnambool cemetery proved how flexible the Chronicle team can be. By engaging with the Trust, we provided options, offering multiple presentations about what’s possible for their unique situation. In the end, this is what helped us to beat the competition – going above and beyond to tailor a solution for a potential client, even if our paths were to have diverged.

Finding Funding - How Yarragon Cemetery Went Digital

Located in the city of Baw Baw, Victoria, Yarragon Cemetery exemplifies the kind of small, rural cemetery that still does things the old-fashioned way. In October 2020, having spoken to Graeme, he seemed content to continue the way they’ve always been managing the cemetery, showing no interest in going digital. After all, Yarragon is small – he saw no obvious challenges in managing their records, comprising two to three copies of paper copies, all stored in a single location. They worked with paper maps, too. Soon after, however, Graeme voiced his concern over the cost of digital mapping and that’s when Chronicle realised that he faced an obstacle which many cemeteries, like Yarragon, are dealing with – funding.

Graeme referred us to Angela, Yarragon’s secretary, with whom we had a chat about their records situation. Angela saw the potential, joining our OVIC webinar a few months later, in January 2021 and that’s when we identified their specific requirements. Yarragon dealt with paper, and lots of it! This included death certificates. All these records needed to be digitised, and one, single map needed to be created. Up until then, they were moving between two to three different maps of their small cemetery to keep track of plots. But how would they get the help they need without funding?

We stepped in, encouraging them to apply to DHHS for a grant in March. After all, DHHS prioritises what we do – data security, the ability to share information while maintaining confidence in records through accurate record keeping and easy access to data. We simplified the process for Yarragon, having sent them a simplified grant templated, prefilled with Chronicle details and the scope of work required. All costs were outlined for their specific cemetery digitisation project with a 5-year software license.

Straightforward. The primary issue was solved after the grant was approved in April of 2021. All we had to do for Graeme and Yarragon after that was to transcribe their paper records, extract information, and digitise it all, while simultaneously rebuilding an accurate digital map for them after identifying unmarked graves.

Kangaroo Ground Cemetery - Urban Transformation

With approximately 70 interments per year, the old, medium-sized cemetery of Kangaroo Ground consists of about 5000 records. It was a mixed bag as some records were on Excel while some sets were on paper, dating back to 1851! They kept their records in Excel and Google cloud storage, but Kangaroo Ground used Excel grids as maps, too. What we continually find with Excel plot maps is that they may look neat and tidy, but are in no way representative of the real world. Cemetery grounds are not accurately represented on neat Excel grid maps, especially when you find multiple burials in a single plot. It creates some confusing situations down the line.

Kangaroo Ground is growing and plans to expand by two thirds (at least), and their current way of managing records involves referring to Excel spreadsheets, confirming what’s available, and showing those to potential clients. Speaking to them in February 2021, the administrators knew the importance of digitising Australian cemeteries in Victoria and what it meant for their progress. They needed real, practical digital maps, along with one interface on which they can update their records and see what plots are available, owned, or reserved. They were using a disjointed system where records were kept in three different places. This needed to be kept on a database that contains all the rights of interment details where they wanted to be able to attach relevant documents, like death certificates. Kangaroo Ground were thorough and sought quotes from other solutions providers.

Our team has a uniquely amicable and helpful approach, and, as with Warrambool, Kangaroo Ground appreciated it. Excuse the pun, but we buried the competition, helped Kangaroo Ground to secure partial fulfilment of their grant application, and worked with the records that they supplied to us electronically. After preliminary analysis and a discussion with their administrative team, we solved discrepancies, combined maps and aerial imagery with their records, and presented Kangaroo Ground with their new, intuitive platform with integrated mapping. Additionally, all relevant parties benefited from our online training on how to easily manage their digitised cemetery.

Spring Hill Cemetery - A Story of Hope in Digitising Australian Cemeteries in Victoria

A very small cemetery with a long, and somewhat sad backstory, Spring Hill Cemetery’s first burial was recorded in the 19th century. The cemetery had 120 records – all on paper – but their map, including many records, and even headstones and monuments were lost in a devastating fire that occurred thirty to forty years ago.

With damaged headstones and no map, the inability to locate and identify burials led to a neglected cemetery. The spark of hope was alive because Spring Hill intended to reopen and sell plots again. They just needed help getting on their feet again by identifying all plots and locating buried bodies. A small, inoperational cemetery fallen into ruin, it all seemed a pipedream without funding.

Chronicle stepped in, by helping them apply for the DHHS grant in the March 2021 period, which they were glad to receive in May. 

Providing them the tools to transfer their paper records onto an Excel spreadsheet from which our team could begin working, they found volunteers to perform data entry. Additionally, Spring Hill received funding to geo-map a small part of their cemetery so burials without markers could be located by using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) – a process on which we lent a helping hand to fulfil the overall objective.

Once geo-mapping is complete, the Chronicle team will be able to perform an aerial and headstone surve. Everything above ground and below will soon be fully surveyed before we fully recreate Spring Hill Cemetery’s records and map in stunning, intuitive digital format. It may sound unique, but we’ve dealt with “Spring Hills” before – one of them being our client in the United States.

Tailored Solutions, Moving Forward

Every cemetery is at a different point in its journey but Chronicle’s up for the challenge and we’ll overcome it together, no matter the concerns. Some cemeteries were partly digitised, some were doing it all the old-fashioned way. Funding proved to be the largest obstacle in the way for smaller cemeteries, while others dealt with very unique backstories. We’re all for resourcefulness. Find out how your cemetery’s unique problems can have tailored solutions with our cemetery software!

A Time for Heroes – The Digitising of Battle Creek Memorial Park

Map and records search: Battle Creek Memorial Park

  • Digitalised cemetery records
  • Physical survey of the cemetery grounds
  • Interactive online cemetery map
  • 24/7 online access to plot/cemetery information
  • Customised database management solutions delivered at a highly affordable price

The Digitising of Battle Creek Memorial Park, Michigan

In Calhoun County, Michigan, lies Battle Creek Memorial Park. A colossal cemetery in the United States, dotted with monuments, gravestones, this institution is one of great significance, both for its community and for Chronicle. With more than 50,000 plots, this vast cemetery caters to the city of Battle Creek whose history goes back to at least 1774 when the Potawatomi and Ottawa Native American tribes formed a joint village near to where the city would later expand.

Notable burials at Battle Creek Memorial Park include two US Congressmen, Paul Werntz Shafer and Howard Eliot Wolpe III. Among them is also interred Ruth Swanson Venn, entrepreneur. Certainly a beacon of legacy for the city of Battle Creek, the Memorial Park is also a beacon of pride for the Chronice team who worked to digitise their records. From a clumsy, complex, and labyrinthine system of records, the team worked to create spectacular cemetery plot maps for the enormous institution.

Skirmishes – Overcoming Cemetery Plot Maps Challenges

batte-creak-cemetery-2

A mammoth task lay ahead, indeed. When confronted with a project of such epic proportions ahead, what does a team do in order to get ahead, work through, and succeed? Strategy, planning, and an in-depth knowledge combined with expertise is what took the Chronicle team through.

This is not to say that it wasn’t easy or intimidating – because trust us, it certainly was. As only our second customer in the United States, Battle Creek Memorial Park meant more than just a foot in the door in the country. Chronicle signed with the institution in December of 2020 and the project began.

They appeared insurmountable at first, but the challenges and obstacles that lay ahead of the team took a number of forms. For one, it was the sheer mass of records that needed to be sorted, made sense of, and then converted and transferred over onto the Chronicle platform.

 

To provide a better idea of the magnitude of the project at hand, we think it best to offer you a few numbers to better conceptualise it. Comprising three cemeteries, Battle Creek Memorial Park holds ample burial space. In numbers, this translates to 57,648 plots altogether! Of that number, the institution holds 24,545 total interments currently – both entombments and ashes from cremations. These are all spread over 20 sections that can be found in the Park Immense, we know, but the Chronicle team of cemetery mapping experts was more than up to the challenge.

Now, it’s not just the size of the task that posed a challenge. Before moving over to Chronicle for cemetery management, Battle Creek Memorial Park dealt with no practical mapping or location finder for their immense cemetery. Both staff and members of the public were forced to work with paper maps and scanned plans, finding themselves easily lost among the tombstones and walkways of the institution. Finding one’s way is not just essential in a cemetery, when family members are on their way to pay respects to their loved ones, but it’s also a key aspect of any efficient infrastructure – both physical and digital.

Eyes on the Objective – The Road to Spectacular Cemetery Database Software

cemetery plot template | chronicle

Creating an accurate cemetery plot map for Battle Creek was only one piece of the puzzle. The Chronicle team had to deal with the cemetery’s existing records, first. It may sound like an everyday issue for many SaaS platforms taking over from the previous cemetery database software, but this proved to be different.

For many in the cemetery management industry, the name Pontem rings a bell. Pontem is an already pretty well-known data manager for cemeteries, but for some types of cemeteries, the way that data is managed is rather complex. The team discussed essential and non-essential data and record sets with ROI holders at various stages of the data conversion process. 

Why is this necessary to understand? First, let’s take you through the process of how Chronicle digitises a cemetery. If you’re an avid reader of our case studies, you know that it usually goes a little something like this:  We obtain high-quality aerial imagery (often using drones), then we overlay existing cemetery plans and map atop the newly-acquired aerial imagery. The team matches old paper matches with the new, high-resolution images of the cemetery and then moves onto drawing each individual cemetery plot.

Scroll back a bit to the number of plots that we mentioned above. Yes, the Chronicle team did what some may consider too complicated, drawing each and every plot to match the memorial park in real life. This dedication to the cause is one of the reasons that John from Battle Creek committed this gargantuan task to Chronicle. No other cemetery software platform even tries to draw a real cemetery plot map – typical platforms usually opt for single dots or points to represent a plot, instead of using polygons.

Database Conversion – The Pontem Labyrinth

Drawing the plot map wasn’t the final boss, only its minion. Back to Pontem. John and his team are struggling in making sense of the records so that we could bring them over into Chronicle. For those cemeteries who use the software and look to move over to a more intuitive platform, Pontem database conversion is often what keeps them tied down.

The Chronicle team charged ahead nonetheless. They reverse-engineered Pontem’s incredibly complex database made up of hundreds of different tables, massive file sizes, and almost half a million line items. They were in the backrooms of Pontem cemetery software, a land where no integrated mapping obscures mistakes, plot IDs attached to non-real plots, floating names without a plot to attach to… fade to black.

Sheer determination brought the team through as they waded through duplicate information and meaningless entries, while at the same time, deciphering whether that information really was a duplicate or whether the entry was really meaningless.

Triumph Against the Numbers

To put it into a battle perspective, it did almost seem like the team emerged from the smoke, battered and bruised, but triumphant, upon the completion of this project. We earned a hard-won, intuitive platform for John, the staff of Battle Creek Memorial Park, and the public who respect the community’s legacy. They ushered in a new era for those involved at the institution, giving managers and administrators a more accessible, accurate view of the cemetery through a spectacular, integrated map – one interface where records and visuals can be easily navigated on a single platform. The cemetery, with its swathes of records and plots, now only needs one click to enter data if a location is to be found. This makes the lives of visitors considerably easier – no more getting lost.

And for administrators at Battle Creek Memorial Park, they’re saving time for what matters. With fewer procedures to follow in order to enter and edit data, they’re far more confident in confirming the status of a cemetery plot or whether an interred person is related to a correct plot number. All this is achievable without having to go through the back and forth of paperwork and data entry in books and spreadsheets.

Battle Creek Memorial Park and the team have gained much-deserved convenience. A memorial park for the local heroes, a rich source of history, and a mission to conserve this vast number of records as accurately as possible is not uncommon for a cemetery or memorial park this grand in size. If you are looking to digitise your records and maps, or simply move from your current less-satisfying digital platform, find out how your cemetery’s unique challenges can have a tailored solution with Chronicle Cemetery Software!

Within the Green Burial – A Natural Way Back to Earth

Within the Green Burial – A Natural Way Back to Earth

Unless science or some other form of modern-day magic can stop death in its tracks, we’re all going to return to the earth, the spirit world, or the endless void – however you want to look at it. Death’s coming for us all, so how do we put this mortal flesh-and-bone machine of ours to rest?

Admittedly, this started out a little morbidly but hey, you are here to read about burial after all, aren’t you? We’ve ascertained that death is inevitable, but there’s no one way to lay our bodies to rest once we’re gone. If you’re in the West, the traditional idea of a funeral and subsequent burial goes a little something like this: your loved ones and friends gather at the social congregation that is your wake, where your body lies in a casket, dressed in your best with a peaceful countenance made to look like you’re asleep by a skilled mortician who also embalms you so that decomposition is kept at bay. Words are said, tears are shed, and then it all moves to the cemetery where you and your casket are lowered into a 6-foot hole in the ground and then covered up by earth.

On the other hand, you might also opt for a cremation. Here, your mortal body is transformed into ash to be kept by your loved ones or have them scatter those remains or inter them in a meaningful place.

Let’s look at a few key points here. We’ve mentioned a casket, embalming, and ashes. There’s a whole lot that can be unpacked here, so let’s move onto how these play a part (or don’t play a part) in what makes a green burial.

In a Nutshell – What Is a Green Burial?

In many ways, we’ve come full circle as a civilisation. The last few years, in particular, have served to wake us up to how we’re progressively ruining the environment through industry and personal choices. There are many of us out here trying to turn things around and shift perspectives in the hopes of alleviating the stress that humanity has been putting on the environment for a long time.

Natural burials are one way that we’re doing this. As a society, we’ve come to realise that we need to return to the earth, in the most literal way possible, with as little excess as possible. Simplicity and minimalism are the key here, so the green burial movement is a way for us to minimise our carbon footprint – even in death.

Green burials are a way to minimise the resources necessary for both the care of the body after death and in its interment. With natural burial, the aim is to leave the world with as little (or nothing) extraneous done or applied to your body before returning to the earth. This also applies to the vessel you’ll be buried in – a natural burial may use no casket or coffin at all, instead opting to be buried in a simple shroud. Of course, your family will end up saving on funeral costs, too – in most cases.

There and Back Again – Of Coffins, Caskets, and Shrouds

Reading the above, you might be on two sides of a proverbial fence. Either, you’re thinking “but we’re just throwing tradition out of the window” or “none of this is new; we’ve always been doing this in my culture/religion.”

If you’re in the second camp, this is true. Listing all the religious or cultural traditions that have been practicing natural burial all this time would be impractical, but we can tell you that traditional Muslim and Jewish customs have been burying their dead this way all this time. In the traditions of both religions, the body is washed – but not embalmed – after death, before being dressed in a plain burial shroud and then buried in the ground. In some areas, especially in cities, you might find that the enshrouded body is carried in a wooden or metal casket of sorts into and out of a hearse to the graveyard. While this does occur, the deceased is almost always buried simply in a shroud if religious traditions are practiced.

If you’re in the first camp and find that green funerals are just a way to rail against tradition, many might remind you that it’s only really been in the last two centuries or so that this tradition has been practiced. For most of human history, the funeral process has been more closely linked to nature, without the use of chemicals and other environmentally harmful materials seeping into the ground.

It’s just that lately, we’re really beginning to see the issues that “traditional” burial methods have had on our environment. Projects like the Burial Belt by Other Architects and Earth Funerals in Australia are trying to create awareness around the environmental impact, logistics, and experience of the way we bury. Ultimately, there’s an increasing need to respect and restore the environment, coupled with a spiritual desire to reconnect with the earth at the heart of green funerals.

Weighing It Up – Why Go Green?

Those key points we’ve told you to keep in mind earlier on? Those are some of the most significant elements that this type of burial is trying to minimise both in principle and practice.

Let’s take a look at caskets and coffins for a minute. We’ve become accustomed to commercially-produced caskets, but we often don’t realise that they’re treated chemically with paint or veneer and contain metal parts – all of which gets buried into the earth’s precious soil. In the United States, for example, the funeral industry buries about 15 million litres of embalming fluid, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 64,500 tons of steel, and 17,000 tons of copper and bronze into the ground with the deceased – every year. And with every cremation, the energy equivalent of 40 litres of petrol is spent, while also emitting other pollutants like dioxin and mercury into the atmosphere.

The embalming fluid that we’ve mentioned is harmful enough since formaldehyde and other embalming chemicals seep slowly into the earth. Of course, this happens over a really long time, constantly polluting as the fluid drastically delays the time your body takes to decompose. While keeping the environment free of pollutants is a major concern for the natural burial movement, the move to prohibit embalming also served to protect the health of funeral home workers. Those embalming fluids might prolong the decomposition of the dead, but the formaldehyde inside is a proven carcinogen with adverse effects on those who are exposed to them regularly.

Ways to Go – Your Natural Funeral Options

The coffins and caskets that we’ve become used to make up about half the cost of every funeral. You’re not obliged to be buried in these as you do have the option of using coffins made of sustainably-harvested wood or to simply use an organic, biodegradable cotton shroud. Remember, in most places, funeral homes are required to accept what you, the customer, provides. And when it comes to embalming, this is almost always done away with. In the case that you would want to be embalmed, green embalming is an option. Instead of formaldehyde, environmentally-friendly essential oils can be used to preserve the body for a few weeks or so,

while dry ice or a refrigeration unit is suggested while transporting the body. Fundamentally, the point of the movement is for the body to decompose naturally.

An awareness of green practices in the funeral industry in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and other parts of the world is growing. With this, comes numerous green funeral options, including green cemeteries or hybrid cemeteries. Hybrid cemeteries, like Bendoc Cemetery in Victoria, Australia, reserve space for both traditional burials and natural burials as perspectives towards returning to the earth begin to shift.

Where Conservation Burial and the Digital Realm Converge

If you do wish to depart to return to the earth in more than just a shroud, Earth Funerals has moved away from traditional coffins to eco-pods – just 9kgs of handcrafted wicker without the use of any paint, veneer, or lacquer that would usually just harm the soil. Earth Funerals emphasises carbon positive burials by contributing to the restoration of acres of wildlife corridors and funding of native greenery with each funeral. 

You’ll find that conservation burials like this are moving further and further away from large, elaborate headstones, choosing instead to survey the site and use a set of GPS coordinates to mark and locate the grave site. Cemetery mapping faces new possibilities – or challenges, perhaps – with restorative natural burial grounds, but our digital platforms have already taken up the task of online memorialisation in the green funeral space.

As notions of how our mortal vessels are laid to rest are evolving once again, or reverting to the ways of old, digital tech will still play a part in keeping legacies alive. As natural burial grounds become more popular, movements like these are beginning to rely more so on the technology of today to remember those who have passed. It’s all about balance. How do we visit our loved ones without headstones to mark their resting place? How do we connect with their memories? Learn all you need to know about digital mapping for your cemetery with the best of our digital cemetery experts!

How Going Digital Helped Transform a Centuries-Old Community Cemetery

Originally featured in ICCFA's Memento Mori vol. March-April 2021

DEATH IS INEVITABLE, and so is change. With our feet firmly planted in the digital era, it is necessary for cemetery management to keep up and adapt to the changing needs and capabilities of the time. The cemetery management industry has been doing just that; but how does a cemetery take on the task of digitising its records and mapping after using “traditional” methods of recordkeeping and mapping for more than a hundred years? Maple Hill Cemetery is a stellar example of a cemetery that has recognised the need for digital transformation in terms of its administration and mapping processes. This cemetery has become something of an institution in Minnesota over the last century, as it has preserved the unique history and legacy of its region in various ways. The decision to digitise the way it is managed was not only seen as a way to make administration for the cemetery easier, but also as a responsibility.

A Scandinavian Haven

As cemeteries go, Maple Hill fits quite neatly into the “small” category and its former Lutheran Church adds a picturesque, spiritual charm to the land. The beauty of this cemetery cannot be understated. It’s worth noting that it overlooks a gleaming lake for a further ethereal quality. Both the cemetery and its church were established around the turn of the 20th century, approximately five miles from the Canadian border. 

It seems fitting, then, that the locality drew a significant number of Scandinavian immigrants—contributing to the country and to the overall feel of the cemetery and its church. This Scandinavian heritage is visible from the headstones that dot the grounds, with names like Berglund, Ericsson, Bjornlund, Hedlund, Haglund, and Ellquist among those who rest there, framed by seasonal pinks and violets from the phlox petals that bloom in the spring. The cemetery also pays homage to the original inhabitants of the land, helping to preserve the region’s Native American legacy. Importantly, the land is historically tied to the family of the current chairman of the cemetery, Howard.

The Familiar Woes

Since the earliest interment here is dated December 1898, it’s only logical that paper ledgers and records had been the order of the day for decades. Today, these ageing records need to be handled with care, making quick, efficient recordkeeping and editing a timely process. Additionally, cemetery management has been neglected from time to time in the 120 years that Maple Hill has been functioning. With insufficient funding, upkeep proved to be difficult over the years and the need for volunteers added to the problems that plagued Maple Hill Cemetery’s recordkeeping. A digital solution needed to solve the problem of inaccurate data affordably. 

It just so happens that those who volunteer to help Maple Hill Cemetery, both in recordkeeping and mapping, are an ageing demographic. With the modern world as it is today, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find volunteers with time on their hands to help with maintaining records, to lay out graves and markers, and to contribute to the cemetery’s general upkeep. Quick turnover in volunteers creates further issues regarding record accuracy; it takes time to train new volunteers and familiarise them with the layout of burial plots and methods of keeping the books. Efficiently digitising records and the ongoing methods to maintain them can alleviate the problems faced by cemeteries like Maple Hill. It was imperative that the cemetery’s paper records and Excel spreadsheets be transferred to a user-friendly, efficient digital platform in a bid to increase accuracy and save the cemetery from the passing of time.

Correcting Innacuracy

Chronicle was faced with a complex challenge. Along with gaps in their records, Maple Hill Cemetery’s Excel spreadsheets and paper records were misaligned with the scanned map plans. The team at Chronicle had to separate plot IDs from the personal details of the interred individual for the team to work on correcting the mismatch between the plot map and their corresponding records. It took more than a month and a half to bring together data that was spread across various mediums—ledgers, old paper documents, and clumsy Excel spreadsheets. 

These records had to correspond with the existing cemetery maps, too. Unfortunately, these maps were off-scale when they were initially drawn, so the Chronicle team strived to make the necessary adjustments, along with improving scaling after a physical survey of the cemetery’s grounds. The new maps, too, were digitised and linked to the records relevant to their corresponding plots.

Going Digital: A Necessity

The inaccuracy between a cemetery’s maps and records is not a novel problem for cemeteries the world over. The nature of the cemetery management industry is that it has been relying on the goodwill of volunteers in virtually every country, and their selflessness does not go unappreciated. However, it’s true that volunteer turnover results in disjointed, non-uniform record keeping which tends to suffer exponentially with time. 

Maple Hill Cemetery’s records were sorted and cleaned up with the help of the Chronicle team, and ported to the software’s cloud, where they’re accessible 24/7 from any device. Now volunteers have a user interface that’s easy to understand and keeps records in a uniform, consistent manner. Every addition or edit to the records is now tracked.

These records are automatically aligned with a stunning visual map of the cemetery – only fitting for a cemetery like this one. Both Howard and prospective clients are provided with a beautiful map of the cemetery with colour-coded markers to instantly identify the availability status of every burial plot. With just a click, both visitors and cemetery administrators also benefit from knowing more about an individual buried in these plots. 

These problems are not unique to this scenic cemetery. Change is inevitable, but it can be undertaken smoothly with a willingness to accept that simpler solutions for traditional processes are available, and made all the more easy with a digital cemetery management platform