Death is not an easy subject to talk about, but it’s an inevitable final chapter of life. By choosing a natural burial over a conventional burial or cremation, you minimise your environmental impact and depart the world in a way that is aligned with your values.
Natural burial has no set definition or standard in Australia, so the rules and regulations vary from state to state. But across the board, the principles of a natural burial generally centre around one fundamental aim: to return bodies to the earth as naturally as possible.
Burial Without Harsh Chemicals
In conventional funeral practices, embalming is an option given to families, especially when cadaver reconstruction is required, an open-coffin is requested or when burial has been delayed. Embalming is only legally required if an aboveground vault is being used. This process uses a toxic chemical cocktail including formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. Over time, as bodies decompose, these chemicals can leech into surrounding soil, destroying microbes and potentially contaminating water systems.
In contrast, natural burials do not allow embalming liquids, and body care involves simply washing with warm water, natural soap and essential oils. Family members can be involved in washing and preparing the deceased for burial, says Libby Moloney, founder of the Natural Death Advocacy Network (NDAN), who also runs Woodend’s Natural Grace Holistic Funerals.
Libby believes this involvement can contribute to a healthy grieving process. ‘They can adjust to the body, and feel more connected to it and proud of the care they’ve provided,’ she says. ‘By the time they get to the funeral ceremony, they’ve given due attention to the very intimate and private grief they’re experiencing.’
Traditional coffins are heavy, solid boxes, often made from tropical hardwoods, laced with toxic glues and varnishes, and lined with synthetic fabrics. They’re designed to keep the body separate from the earth for as long as possible.
Natural burials must instead use a biodegradable coffin made from untreated pine, cardboard, wool or woven from natural fibres such as sea grass, bamboo or rattan. Deft hands can build your own coffin, as long as it’s entirely biodegradable and free from toxic glues.
It’s a good idea to do a quick Google search to check your state’s coffin definition first. If you’re a Tasmanian local who needs DIY help, the Community Coffin Club meets weekly at the Ulverstone Community Shed, or otherwise you can source tutorials online.
Stacey Farmer, a holistic funeral director from Western Australia, sells fair trade biodegradable coffins through her company Serendipity Coffins. Stacey previously worked as a conventional funeral director before realising families weren’t being offered any natural options. While some companies do now offer LifeArt cardboard coffins, Stacey says families are often unaware of their choices. ‘It should be up to people within the industry to educate the public about their choices, but they tend to just stick with what they know.’
Alternatively, a shrouded burial that foregoes a coffin is an option in most parts of Australia. Different states have legal requirements for shrouded burial and the transportation of shrouded bodies, with many requiring a coffin at certain stages. In this instance, community coffins can be hired but are not buried with the body. NDAN can provide information about your state laws and also recommend how to access a community coffin.
Bushland Gravesites And GPS Headstones
Natural burial sites are bushland areas quite different to the manicured gardens of conventional cemeteries. They are free of pesticides and herbicides, and vegetation is allowed to restore itself with little interference. Gravesites are shallower than conventional burials, again allowing for decomposition to occur more quickly. And rather than tombstones marking graves, the body location is recorded using GPS coordinates.
‘There are plenty of beautiful ways to mark graves without significantly impacting the environment,’ says Libby. ‘You can move a rock from within the same site to mark the grave, plant a native tree, put the grave near an existing tree or even lay a handmade clay paver into the ground and put someone’s name on it. It will deteriorate after 10 years, but that mostly meets people’s needs.’
Australia now has close to a dozen natural burial sites. Western Australia has bushland sites at Fremantle Cemetery and Pinnaroo Valley Memorial Park. Alberton Cemetery at the northern end of the Gold Coast services Queenslanders; previously the closest was Lismore Bush Cemetery in New South Wales. Adelaide offers Wirra Wonga at Enfield Memorial Park and Pilyu Yarta at Smithfield Memorial Park. Victorians can be laid to rest at Lilydale Memorial Park and Healesville Cemetery, while residents in Canberra can be buried at Gungahlin Cemetery. Tasmania has one natural burial site in Kingston Cemetery, just south of Hobart.
Permission to bury on private property can be sought in most states, though the application process can be rigorous, time consuming and costly.
A More Sustainable Cremation Option
In 2015 cremations overtook the number of Australian burials and have since remained our most popular funeral option. A 2008 study conducted by Adelaide’s Centennial Park found although cremations emit 160 kg of carbon dioxide, the environmental impact is less than traditional burials when longterm gravesite maintenance such as watering and lawn mowing is taken into account.
But cremations don’t stack up as well compared to natural burials. It’s estimated that natural burials emit less than half as much carbon as cremations. Tree planting in bush cemeteries can help to further reduce these emissions. Cremation also releases mercury from teeth fillings, with UK reports finding cremations released 1.34 tonnes of mercury in 2003, with some reaching marine environments and possibly entering the food chain.
To lessen the environmental impact of cremations, Libby helped to pioneer a practice in Victoria called shrouded cremation. It follows natural burial body care principles but doesn’t burn the coffin along with the body. The practice is becoming increasingly popular, though is not yet legal in all states and territories.
Skip The Funeral Director And DIY
Throughout human history, families have conducted funerals themselves, and loved ones can still do most aspects today. Family-led funerals are slowly increasing in popularity and are made easier through groups such as NDAN.
Body care can take place at home, with home vigils made possible by hiring cooling beds from funeral homes. Death doulas or home funeral directors can offer support and guidance throughout all stages of a home death, including post-mortem care.
Home deaths need certification by a doctor who has treated the patient and, if the body is to be cremated, a second doctor is needed to authorise cremation. The death must also be registered according to state law. On occasions, cemeteries can be unwilling to take a booking from a family. In this instance, NDAN can guide the cemetery through the process of a family-led funeral.
In the end, natural burials are as much about the environment as they are about empowerment and connection. ‘Natural burial and cremation choices are a big part of giving families deeply authentic, connected and meaningful end of life experiences,’ says Libby. ‘When surviving family can honour the known wishes of a person who has died, the psychological benefit is enormous.’
The Hand Woven Casket Company
Natural Grace: Holistic Funeral Directors
Natural Death Advocacy Network (NDAN)