12 Oct 2018

The rise of the natural burial

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:15 pm on 12 October 2018

Planning a funeral in advance can prevent a lot of stress for the people left, says Lynda Hannah of Motueka's natural funeral company Living Legacies.

"Everybody's grieving, everybody's stressed, they've got to ring people who are overseas to come back ... and nobody knows what to do."

Forest of native trees - New Zealand

Photo: pstedrak / 123RF

Some people find it disempowering to hand everything over to a funeral director, but it's too much to take on everything themselves, Hannah says.

She sees her service – helping the family care and transport the body, plan the funeral, ceremony and burial or cremation – as something in the middle.

Embalming is a very toxic process, Hannah says, so to cut back on chemicals she shows the family how to keep the body cold – and temporarily preserved – at home, using bags of party ice.

Depending on the age of the person, the cause of death and the climate, a body kept very cold and dry – ideally in the coldest room in the house – will usually decompose very slowly, she says.

The entrance to Makara Cemetery near Wellington - the first NZ cemetery to offer natural burials.

The entrance to Makara Cemetery near Wellington - the first NZ cemetery to offer natural burials. Photo: Wellington City Council

Cremation uses a lot of fossil fuels, Hannah says – "to turn all the lovely nutrients in your juicy body into toxic air pollution" – and she recommends instead burial at a natural burial park.

"The body is buried in a relatively shallow grave – not six feet down. It's unembalmed and there's no plastic or other pollutant goes into the grave.

"A tree is planted on top, so over time, the area where the graves are becomes a little patch of natural forest."

Lynda Hannah, director of the Motueka-based natural burial company Living Legacies

Lynda Hannah, director of the Motueka-based natural burial company Living Legacies Photo: Eco Living in Action

Living Legacies coffins are made of local pine, and untreated wood such as pine or willow is a better choice for the environment than the medium-density fibreboard (MDF) which most conventional coffins are made of, Hannah says.

The amount of time a body takes to decompose in the ground will depend not only on whether it's embalmed but also on how many artificial preservatives the person has consumed in their food and also how deeply it's buried, she says.

In a natural burial, bodies are buried in the topsoil or subsoil because that's where the majority of microbial life is – "all the worms and nematodes and bacteria and what-have-you" – so they will break down much faster.

"Six feet down, there's not much action so a body will take a lot longer to decompose down there."

More information about natural burials in New Zealand – including a list of the country's natural burial parks and cemeteries (both certified and non-certified) – is available from the not-for-profit organisation Natural Burials here.

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