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.

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!