(4 part series on Human Disposition)
PART 2 – THE CASE FOR NATURAL BURIAL
A natural burial is at its core a very simple process: our beloved are tenderly placed back into the arms of the Earth, allowed to organically decompose in the warm soil, and in this way returned to their natural origins at the completion of life. This is a very gentle, family centred approach embracing nature at the end of bodily life.
The history of natural burial harks back to a simpler time, when death and body disposal was more community and family based. Now in small pockets around the world, natural burial is again becoming the kinder alternative to conventional burial. Throughout Europe, the US and UK there are many long established and flourishing natural burial grounds. In the UK there are almost 200 dedicated natural burial grounds alone. These are often created on sites of land in need of regeneration. There are now many leached and overgrazed paddocks being rested and revived in this way. As trees are replanted and gifted with life giving nutrients by our decomposing bodies, they continue to grow, and shade our people’s last resting places.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING BURIED ‘6 FEET UNDER’?
Extensive use of finite resources go into maintaining lawn cemeteries. Volumes of water are used to sustain manicured burial grounds. However the problems with standard modern burial practise go deeper. Burying a body 5 or ‘6 feet under’ means we completely miss the aerobic layers of soil where the essential nutrients and bacteria for proper decomposition live. It’s in the top soil layers where life flourishes, so a natural burial must be of shallow depth somewhere between 1.2m to 1.5m deep.
In Australia, we are early in our momentus to move toward natural burial and designated natural burial grounds. In NSW, Human Burial Legislation requires the top of a coffin to be buried no less than 900 millimetres below the natural surface level of the soil. This is perfect placement for the deceased to be received into the warm aerobic layers of soil. Much further down, the soil is colder, harder and darker. This is a place where our encoffined bodies turn to black, stinking sludge, wrapped in the thick plastic lining that we were buried in, our sludge is unable to escape its confines and has no contact with the Earth. This is not how I want to be buried.
A GENTLE ALTERNATIVE
There is no place for synthetics of any kind in a natural burial. This includes clothing, or any other standard funeral home inclusions like plastic eye caps or body bags and tags. Even the invasive procedure of sewing shut the mouth of the deceased is rejected for alternate, more compassionate methods of care. Holistic Funerals directors may use essential oils, cool packs and paw paw ointment to provide the same result, but in a more reverential way.
Burial in a shroud is entirely legal. The Director General of Public Health has mandated it permissible to bury in a shroud of up to 4 layers of fabric, however the opportunity to bury in this way is limited by the policies of individual cemetery proprietors, who are our local councils and private owners.
In the most natural of burials, the deceased are gently wrapped in a shroud of natural fibre before final disposition. A simple swaddling in cloth, just as babies are at birth but now at the other end of life. When we shroud, we may choose any natural fibre cloth, but protein-based fibres like silk and wool wonderfully decompose at the same rate as the human body. If we bury with synthetic fibres, like polyester suits and viscose rayon dresses, the apparel will still be intact when the body skeletonises.
RECLAIMING OUR DEATH RIGHTS
Reclaiming death means families claim the right to be involved in the loving care of their dying person right up until final disposition of the body. All of the actions individuals can take to care for their beloved dead are instrumental in healing the sadness of deep and irrevocable loss. The more ‘hands on’ we can encourage our families to be, the more the rituals of care can ultimately transform their grief into a new way of being in the world.
With a natural burial, family members may be involved with as much of the process as they wish. This might include the manual digging of the shallow depth grave, placing their shrouded (or otherwise natural material encased) deceased within the arms of the Earth, refilling the grave and leaving nature to gently decompose the body. In this way, the cycle of life is truly a whole. The nutrients that gave us life are returned to the Earth, and life which includes death, is complete.
I find deep contentment in knowing that my body, at nature’s pace, will dissolve back into the land that has sustained me all these years of my life. As my body comes apart in the warm Earth I am returning the borrowed nutrients as a final act of gratitude. In death I am adding value to the Earth and to the future generations.
In Part 3, we look at whether there are any true natural burial grounds in Australia and the urgent need for the rise of the natural burial movement in our country.