Some Australians are taking their commitment to the environment to the grave, opting for eco-friendly burials where headstones are replaced by GPS coordinates. Elizabeth Pratt reports.

Hidden in the bushland of Lismore is a piece of rough scrubland. It’s a serene spot surrounded by gum trees, where koalas are frequent visitors and the perfume of eucalyptus leaves drifts in the air.

But unlike other bushland parks in NSW, you’re not likely to find a family settling down for a picnic to spot the koalas. You’re more likely to see them walking around staring intently at a handheld GPS looking for a grave.

In the latest environmental trend, parks like this are becoming natural burial grounds where in place of a headstone, families use a device like a mobile phone to pinpoint the location where their loved one is buried.

“It’s the natural and original way that people got buried. They weren’t in a box, they weren’t in a concrete crypt, they didn’t have a big marker, they weren’t in a row; they were randomly placed in the earth.”

Green burials where graves are marked by GPS coordinates instead of a headstone. Image Susannah Singh

Zenith Virago is the founder of the Natural Death Centre, an organisation that has operated in Byron Bay for the past 15 years. The centre facilitates natural burials for those wishing to minimise their impact on the environment at the time of their death by following eco burial guidelines.

“You’re not using plastic in the coffin, you’re using a cardboard coffin…a recyclable substance, or you can be buried in a shroud with permission from the health department… all of that reduces the amount of waste you’re using,” Virago says.

The Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association defines natural burials as “the act of returning the body as naturally as possible to the earth”. This is achieved without the use of cremation, which can generate up to 160kg of greenhouse gasses per corpse, and without the use of embalming liquids that often contain the carcinogenic chemical formaldehyde, that can leak into the soil once a body is buried.

Bodies buried within natural burial parks such as Lismore’s Bushland Cemetery are interred without the use of headstones or cement faces. This is to minimise the amount of fuel needed in the burial process and also to avoid disrupting the natural landscape. GPS navigation pinpoints the exact coordinates of the grave, made available to families so they can find the resting place of their deceased loved ones.

Few would argue that green burials aren’t a unique idea, with many believing they do have significant environmental benefits, but Greg Milgate, NSW Operations Manager of Gregory and Carr Funerals, isn’t too keen on the idea.

“You can’t say to someone ‘Dad’s laying just there’ if you haven’t got something that’s marked,” Milgate says.

“You’re going to have coordinates and you’re going to pace it out but how sure are you that you’re standing on the spot where your loved ones are buried? If I’ve got a head stone there I know it’s the head of the grave, I can be 100 per cent sure.”

Milgate has been in the funeral business for 20 years and has dealt with over 20,000 burials and cremations. Although not a strong advocate for Natural Burial Parks Milgate acknowledges the growing need within the funeral industry to preserve the environment.

“Everything we do we try and do so we don’t harm the environment,” he says, though is quick to admit green alternatives can often come with a hefty price tag.

“I will say to people ‘I can get you a cardboard coffin, but I can’t get you a cardboard coffin cheaper than a normal coffin’. If anything the cardboard is more expensive because it has to be treated to carry the weight.”

Milgate personally wishes to be cremated, a trend he has seen increase in the past decade; partially because people have less time, (and cremation is less time consuming), and partially because he thinks people are conscious of the rising costs of burial, with space becoming more of a problem.

“You get to a stage where you have so many millions of people in Australia and you have so many thousands dying every year, you’re going to run out of space to bury them eventually,” he says.

Using already existing bushland to combat this problem has become the next viable step.

“The reason we actually started this bushland cemetery was simply because we had land available that we couldn’t use for any other purpose,” says Kris Whitney, Coordinator of Lismore Bushland Cemetery.

The land within the cemetery is home to a species of koala that was recently put on the endangered species list. This meant the land couldn’t be developed into a traditional lawn cemetery, and would need to be left as it was. Whitney believes this rough scrub landscape is part of the appeal of natural burial at the site.

“You’re left with the grass understorey and a tall structure of eucalyptus above that, so it becomes a nice open cemetery environment if you like,” he says.

“The reason people want to be buried like that is because they want to be buried in nature, so they want the nature to be omnipresent, they just want it to be natural,” Virago says.

Australia has natural burial sites in Lismore, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia and most recently at Kemps Creek in Sydney. Although many in Australia are turning towards green alternatives, green burial is still considered an alternative funeral practice by many.

Jane Bravery of Lismore works in the funeral industry and is currently studying eco-cultural history. Since the Lismore Bushland Cemetery opened in 2008 Bravery says the response has been largely positive, but it is still considered alternative.

“It’s not a mainstream thing. It doesn’t appeal to everybody because not everybody would like having to walk through native bushland to find a plot.”

Bravery does believe that from an ecological perspective making use of land without harming the environment is a positive step forward.

“In observing the eco-burial guidelines it’s not destroying a piece of land. I think if we have to have cemeteries it’s a good alternative. It’s being able to use land that otherwise wouldn’t be able to be used, it saves claiming land and redeveloping land somewhere else,” she says.

Virago believes green burials not only have an appeal to those with an environmental conscience but also for people looking for a more personal, special experience for those who are left behind.

“People start to get dissatisfied with the experience and start to think, ‘there must be another way of doing this.’ So we slow it down, we build our own coffin, we drive it in our own car, we take the body home to spend some time with it, we have the ceremony in the park, we share food together and it is a very different experience, a very special way of saying goodbye to someone,” she says.

Ultimately, those in the funeral industry, whether operating from a traditional or eco-friendly stand point, are in agreement that any burial process that fulfils the desire of the deceased to return to the earth in the most natural of ways, can only be a positive thing.

“We’re here to provide people with what they want,” Milgate says. As a funeral director he believes his role is to assist in disposing of the mortal remains in a way that would have been favoured by the deceased.

“It [the grave] is the tent that houses the soul. The soul has gone on to the next life; to heaven, to hell, whatever you believe. The tent that houses the soul is all you reverently dispose of. And that’s what we say we do, we are reverently disposing of the mortal remains,” he says.

At face value it is extremely hard to believe that buried beneath the gum trees and wild grasses of Lismore Bushland cemetery are 33 graves. But in talking to those who have ever come across the site, it is apparent that its natural, unruly appearance is part of its appeal in bringing beauty to an otherwise sad time.

“It’s satisfying to assist people at that time to create something that’s beautiful, that makes a difference, that transforms the sadness into a way of celebrating their relationship with someone,” Virago says.

“When you look back, you think about them being buried, laying under that tree…and that’s better than being under a bit of concrete in a row. It’s not rocket science.”

This article was first published on Reportage-Enviro by Elizabeth Pratt.

Reportage is the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism’s (ACIJ) web magazine. It is dedicated to high quality independent journalism.

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