Pushing up Daisies

The eco burial movement is gaining momentum as we become more conscious of our footprint in life - and death. Story by Vanessa Murray

Death comes to all, Fabricius said. Yet we're doing our best to deny it. I'm not talking about memorials and photos here, but about the scientific preservation of the human body.

Embalming corpses with a toxic mixture of chemicals, then encasing them in decay resistant coffins prior to burial or cremation, is standard practice these days. No doubt anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one will agree that we can better accept and come to terms with death by seeing, touching and spending time with the body of a loved one post-mortem. But do we really need to pump a body full of preservatives in order to make it look as life-like as possible for as long as possible?

Well, no. In Australia, embalming is not mandatory. A Death Certificate or Life Extinct Form must be signed by a doctor, but, provided bodies are kept relatively cool and handled carefully, there is no health risk from choosing not to embalm. Likewise, there is no requirement that bodies be encased in reinforced, decay-resistant caskets. Surprised? Me too.

As a society, our "out of sight, out of mind" attitude towards death means that we are blissfully unaware of post-mortem practices and related legislation until circumstances force them upon us. As Susan Henly reported last year ("Death of a Salesman", The Age 28 August 2005), the funeral industry "has weak demand-side pressure to drive competition because consumers in the funeral market undertake less product exploration and choice." In the throes of the shock, grieving and emotional distress we experience with the death of someone dear to us, we are hardly best placed to make well-considered, informed consumer choices.

Moreover, the modern, Western treatment of death has lost the "psychological relationship between the phenomenon of death and the phenomenon of life", according to psychologist Robert Jay Lifton (Lifton RJ, The Broken Connection: on death and the continuity of life 1979: Simon & Schuster, New York).

Death has become something unfamiliar, a distasteful, intimidating occurrence to be removed and disguised as quickly as possible. The age-old practice of "laying out the dead", washing, dressing and singing to the deceased, has been replaced by the visit of an undertaker, who removes the rawness of death, treats it with embalming, dressing, makeup, and returns a body looking nice and neat and tidy.

Today, calling an undertaker is usually the first thing to do when dealing with a death. Their service makes things easy for us at a difficult time. They tell us gently what we need, how to cope. We don't ask questions.

Ironically, current post-mortem practices pose significant health risks to the living and to the environment. But things are changing. A new, ecologically sound trend in the treatment and interment of dead bodies is slowly taking root. Termed natural, eco or environmental burials, the movement represents a shift away from our social denial of the reality of death. Bodily decomposition and decay is facilitated by not embalming bodies, and burying them in a simple, biodegradable cardboard coffin or shroud. The first site in Australia was established in Hobart, Tasmania in 2003, and has been met with overwhelming interest and support, both from the local community and the Australian funeral industry.

Letting nature take its course. It seems so simple! Yet modern post-mortem practices are highly toxic. An undertaker embalms a corpse with a mixture that includes formaldehyde, a potent human carcinogen that can cause flu-like symptoms, rashes, asthma, neurological illness, and several types of cancer, and glutaraldehyde, a toxic chemical that can cause severe irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and may induce nausea, headaches, drowsiness, and dizziness. Hospital and funeral home workers involved in embalming have a 30 per cent greater chance of catching cancer of the throat, nose or pharynx.

Today, 27 per cent of bodies are buried, and 73 per cent are cremated. Either way, it's emerging that the long-term environmental effects of prevalent post-mortem practices are lethal. It takes two to three years for embalming substances, volatile compounds known to contribute to smog, ozone depletion and global warming, to start seeping into the soil and water aquifers surrounding a cemetery. The USA alone buries 827,060 gallons (that's about 110 petrol tankers worth!) of embalming fluid per year. The UK's Environment Agency has estimated that embalmed bodies leach about 40mg of formaldehyde effluent per litre of groundwater in the first year alone. Formaldehyde above a certain level in the water supply poses a significant human health risk, and has been found to be highly toxic to aquatic life.

Cremation is no kinder on the environment. According to the EU, 12 per cent of the UK's atmospheric dioxins resulting from combustion come from crematoria. Dioxins have been linked to skin lesions and altered liver function, to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, endocrine and reproductive functions, and to several types of cancer.

For many, rationalisation has vetoed death as a rung on the stepladder to heaven, the promised land, nirvana, or the reassurance of plain old samsara. And as we settle into the 21st century, the quest for immortality takes on new and strange incarnations. In July, Warwick McFadyen ("Now it's ashes to ashes, dust to diamonds in eternity", The Age, July 16 2005) reported a new service being offered in Australia by LifeGem, a US-based company specialising in turning the carbonised remains of a body into a yellow, blue or orange-red diamond. Other options yet to reach our shores include having your ashes mixed with concrete and sunk to the ocean floor by Eternal Reef, where a brass plaque bearing your name will surprise deepsea divers for eternity. Why not let the Summum Organisation embalm you like a mummy, Egyptian-style? Or, to really go out with a bang, the Celestis Foundation will shoot a symbolic portion of your cremated remains (cremains) into orbit. You'll circle the earth for about 50 years before re-entering the atmosphere "blazing like a shooting star in final tribute."

It's fair to say that death, life's last great mystery, freaks us out. Writer Don Delillo joked in 1956 that "we seem to believe it is possible to ward off death by following rules of good grooming". Indeed. In life we obsess over remaining forever young, religiously applying skin firming, wrinkle banishing regenerative creams and worshipping the young and beautiful.

In death, we seek to remain "forever", by embalming bodies with potentially lethal chemicals and encasing them in impenetrable coffins reinforced with agents such as fibreglass, steel and plastic. In the USA, it's even possible to be "cryonically suspended" (frozen). For US$28,000, the Cryonics Institute will freeze your body until a time when science is able to grant you "a youthful and healthy new life". These same companies are poised to institute cloning activities for humans - all that they need is a shift in public attitudes and legislation.

Bushland Burials at Kingston in Hobart offer "a simple, informal, natural, and non-traditional form of burial or ashes placement." No vaults, durable coffins and linings or embalming are permitted at the Bushland Burials site. No memorials or structures. No herbicides. No plastic flowers. No skateboarders. Just a body, treated in an ecologically friendly way, encased in a coffin made of plain or untreated pine, chipboard or heavy duty cardboard, with native plants from an approved list buried on the site. Fresh flowers are allowed on gravesites at burial time only and will be removed after one week.

It's all about "enabling people to be at one with the natural environment" and "making small footprints on the bushland area", says Stephen Jacques, administrator at the Southern Regional Cemeteries Trust, which oversees Bushland Burials.

Since its establishment in 2003, Bushland Burials has been the subject of much interest. The Trust reported on its eco-innovation at the 2004 meeting of the Australasian Cemeteries & Crematoria Association (ACCA) Conference, and received overwhelming interest and support. "We had calls from Canberra, Queensland, New South Wales, all over. Canberra and New South Wales both have sites going now," said Jacques. The Tasmanian community is equally supportive, and queries from members of the general public seeking their final resting place have come from all over Australia.

Clients of Bushland Burials have three options: burial, interment of ashes, or scattering of ashes. With burial and interment, a native shrub is planted over the site and a rock with a bronze plaque bearing the deceased's name may be placed alongside. Scattering involves distributing ashes around the site's bushland area in a natural way.

A plaque acknowledging the deceased's contribution to the site is placed on a rock wall near the entrance to the site. So far, the figures at Bushland Burials mirror industry trends as a whole, with more cremations than burials: three burials, 12 interments and two scatterings have occurred.

At Bushland Burials, there is the capacity to hold 300-400 bodies.

Already, 20 sites have been earmarked for future use. In this time of longevity and managed terminal illness, playing an active role in planning their funeral can assist people to accept that death is near. Often a natural burial is one that has been planned in advance, by someone who has embraced the inevitability of their own death and wants to do it their way.

Eco burials are a relatively recent phenomenon, the latest in the green movement's increasingly feathered cap. The first natural burial site was established in the United Kingdom in 1993, and there are now more than 100 spread across the isles. Outside of the UK, Wellington in New Zealand was the first city in the world to boast its own natural cemetery, at Makara, where an ecologically sound burial is considered "an environmental donation'. Tasmania's Bushland Burials is based on the UK model, but, as Stephen Jacques is quick to point out, inherent differences between Australian and English climates and environments mean that things need to be done differently here. "We don't have the deep soils and so on that the UK has, so we pre-dig our sites to minimise impact on the bushland environment."

There are obvious parallels between the eco burial movement and other aspects of the green movement, such as organic farming and recycling. All have emerged in the latter half of the 20th century as alternatives to the intensification of human behaviour on the natural environment, and emerging evidence that our footsteps are not treading as lightly as they should to ensure that modern living is sustainable. All are movements that began local and went global, pushed forward by a dedicated core of activists, movers and shakers who want to make things happen. And all are growing and taking hold in the mainstream as people gain awareness and begin to exercise their consumer and behavioural choices.

Bushland Burials and their international peers represent a new era of openness, not only towards the subject of death, but a very real way in which we can be sure to push up daisies for years to come.