a Natural Burial Ground is to return human remains to the ecosystem, as a ‘gift to the environment’
A Natural Burial Ground is a place where human burial usually takes place in a biodegradable coffin or shroud, and a tree, shrub or wildflowers are planted as a memorial instead of having a headstone. Natural Burial Grounds have been promoted as providing an environmentally responsible, modern burial practice.
Natural Burial Grounds have also been described as green cemeteries. However, ‘green cemetery’ is a more general term that could refer to a very broad spectrum of funeral industry practices. Therefore, a Natural Burial Ground is one type of ‘green cemetery’. Consumer demand for environmentally friendly services and products has generated a range of market responses, and a number of ‘eco’ funeral products are now available. These include coffins made of recycled materials or untreated wood, drought tolerant landscaping in cemeteries, and ‘carbon offset’ programs where consumers can have trees planted to offset the emissions from a funeral or cremation. Cemetery infrastructure such as chapels can also incorporate green design approaches by collecting solar energy and rainwater etc.
The Green Funeral offers: Conservation Burial Grounds. Which are a type of Natural Burial Ground in which ecological objectives are most strongly emphasised. This can be thought of as nature reserves which provide cemetery functions, rather than cemeteries trying to be greener.
To be a Conservation Burial Ground the site must be part of a larger conservation project, where the conservation organisation is the long term steward.
A Historical View: Australian cemetery design and practices have their origins in England. Medieval burial practices in England included shallow burial in church grounds, without coffins. Soil was periodically removed and distributed on the Commons. The bones were stored in, or under, the charnel house or chapel.
In the 1600s and 1700s population growth and the impact of disease such as the plague and cholera outstripped the capacity for church land in large towns to manage the disposal of bodies. As a result they piled up, were interred in common graves and in chambers under churches, and posed health risks to growing urban populations.
It was also during this time that cemeteries acquired high walls and gates, and coffins and heavy stone slabs over graves became common, in defense against the practice of grave- robbing to supply bodies for medical science.
During the 1800s, reformers in England and France promoted new approaches to cemeteries, influenced by the rationalist, enlightenment ideas of the time. They designed and built Necropolises or ‘cities of the dead’, and large, park-like cemeteries in a picturesque style. The control of cemeteries also shifted from primarily church control, to public ownership and management.
The Nineteenth Century cemeteries reflected contemporary concerns with social order. The new cemeteries with their classical and gothic vaults and chapels, were located outside the crowded inner city areas, and were promoted in terms of the amenity for the urban public, as botanical gardens and as ‘breathing places’. Their beauty and order, it was argued, would help “to improve the moral sentiments and general taste of all classes and more especially of the great masses of society” (Louden in Curl, 1993). According to one architectural historian, the new designs for cities and gardens of the dead “represented an idealized order in the cities for the living” (Darnall, 1983).
These Nineteenth Century cemetery ideas remain influential today. Many of the large urban cemeteries in Australia were designed as Necropolises or cemetery-gardens.
In the early Twentieth Century, new ideas about cemeteries emerged. The ‘Woodland Cemetery’ in Stockholm is an example of a modernist landscape design. The architects placed even more emphasis on the natural environment, so that it became the dominant element in the cemetery, with graves set among the huge pine trees of a Nordic forest. This example of ‘romantic naturalism’ in cemetery design also refers to ancient Nordic burial customs, and reflects modern concerns about identity, place and nationhood.
In a similar way, the bushland cemetery at Pinnaroo in Western Australia is set in a Eucalypt forest and reflects an Australian identity and landscape much different to that of the older Australian cemeteries, with their exotic plantings and European architectural references.
Over time, cemetery practices and designs have changed, and these changes have reflected aspects of the relationship between society and nature of each period. It is possible to see these themes in the discourse on Natural Burial Grounds where the cemetery elements are minimised further, and the place of nature is strongly emphasized. If the point of a Natural Burial Ground is to return human remains to the ecosystem, as a ‘gift to the environment’, there are also interesting echoes of the burial customs of pre-modern times, which also returned nutrients to the Commons.
Cremation has been criticised by some natural burial advocates for its high energy use, production of greenhouse gas emissions and generation of airborne pollutants. This is frequently cited as one of the main arguments for developing Natural Burial Grounds. Hpwever the issue of environmental impacts from funeral practices is a sensitive one and is not that straight forward.
A report by GHD compared the greenhouse gas emissions from cremation and burial (2007). The study estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from cremation were 160 kg of CO2 equivalent per person. So for example in 2006/07 the total number of cremations in SA was 7511, so the emissions from cremation in SA was approximately 120.
GHD estimated that burial produces fewer emissions, at 39 kg of CO2 equivalent per burial, at the time of interment. In 2006/07, 4424 people were buried in South Australia and this would have produced approximately 17 tonnes CO2 equivalent emissions that year.
This report also concluded, however, that the maintenance of burial sites in conventional cemeteries resulted in a 10% greater environmental footprint for burial than for cremation, due to the use of fossil fuels in mowing lawns and maintaining gardens over long periods.
To put these figures in perspective, the average car produces about 4500 kg of greenhouse gas emissions per annum, therefore in SA for 2006/07, the burial of people produced about the same greenhouse gas emissions as running 38 cars for a year, and cremation produced the equivalent emissions of running about 267 vehicles for a year.