Eco-conscious funerals on the rise

By Amelia Reynolds

Funerals are our final chance to choose to make a sustainable choice.
Funerals are our final chance to choose to make a sustainable choice.

Community: Funerals are our final chance to choose to make a sustainable choice. The most common caskets in NZ are MDF caskets with plastic handles, embalming fluids contain toxic formaldehyde, and burial at six feet under doesn't allow for a more natural oxygen-led process of decomposition. A natural burial, on the other hand, is completely sustainable and sends the body back to the flora, fauna and ecosystem.

Natural cemeteries first reappeared on the scene in the early 1990s, conceptualised by Ken West in Carlisle UK, who received an OBE for a lifetime's work in this area. The UK's natural Death Centre, the Native Woodland organisation, and the USA's Green Burial Council are all extending research and knowledge across the English-speaking world. According to a recent study by Durham University, the popularity of natural burials is growing three times faster in the United Kingdom than when crematoriums were first introduced 150 years ago, more than 260 natural burial sites now exist in Britain.

The New Zealand movement is guided by a number of parties, including the not-for-profit organisation Natural Burials (naturalburials.co.nz) , established by Mark Blackham in 1999, Lynda Hannah of Living Legacies (livinglegacies.co.nz), and Tamara Linnhoff of the Good Funeral Guide (goodfuneralguide.co.nz).

The first NZ eco-internment was at Auckland's Waikumete back in 1999. In 2007, in partnership with Natural Burials, Wellington City Council opened a dedicated natural burial area at its Makara Cemetery, which to date has over 85 burials. In six years the cemetery has grown from an initial eight burials in the first year, to around three to four burials a month, around 1% of Wellington's total burials. Natural burial sites are also open in Motueka, New Plymouth and the Kapiti Coast, a new space is due to open shortly at Auckland's Waikumete, with regional councils considering sites in Palmerston North, Canterbury, the Wairarapa and Waikato.

Blackham, who has had a strong love of the natural world since the age of 12 when he was involved in an environmental competition, lost a child at birth and found that he and his wife were unable to bury him naturally. "It seemed like it was such a natural thing to do." Determined to make natural burials a choice for New Zealanders, he discovered that his idea was supported by others around him and Natural Burials was founded.

In a natural burial, if the body is not to be wrapped in shroud, then a sustainable casket must be used. The body must not be embalmed in toxic chemicals, and is buried within the first 750cm of the soil, rather than the conventional six feet clay burial, to assist the breakdown of the body and encourage the restoration of the cemetery site into a full native or natural eco-system. Memorialisation alternatives to a headstone include a tree above the grave, a natural stone or wooden carving.

Around the world, natural burial sites vary from woodlands to wildflower meadows, orchards and parklands of native flora. While 'returning to the earth' is key, overseas natural burial grounds place equal emphasis on the nurturing aspect of a natural burial ground as a special site in which the bereaved can visit a loved one for some quiet peaceful contemplation, surrounded by natural beauty.

A handful of niche businesses have popped up in the last ten or so years, specialising in sustainable and natural burial certified caskets to satisfy an increasingly sustainable-conscious consumer.

State of Grace (stateofgrace.net.nz) and the Natural Funeral Company (thenaturalfuneralcompany.co.nz) are Auckland-based funeral homes specialising in natural and sustainable funerals. The philosophy of both funeral homes is to return to the practice of an earlier time, when family members were more involved in the process, and both stock a range of eco-friendly caskets from a number of high profile designers and built from a range of sustainable materials - from cardboard to bamboo and macrocarpa. More traditional funeral directors are also well versed in the eco-funeral options available, with almost all now offering sustainable caskets.

TenderRest Andrew Hubbard with casketsTender Rest (tenderrest.co.nz), established by Andrew Hubbard, offer all sustainable caskets with a focus on affordability and personalisation, offering a range of prints and bespoke designs all using eco-friendly inks. Materials used include untreated New Zealand pine, sustainable bamboo, and 100% recycled paper pulp. Caskets are lined with sheep wool and natural fibres. In recent years, TenderRest has won a Westpac Sustainable Business Award.

NZH0554605950Return to Sender (returntosender.co.nz), established by Greg Holdsworth in 2005, aims to cater to "the growing number of people looking for less traditional, aesthetically designed and environmentally preferable coffins and make a significant positive difference to the environmental impact of funerals both in New Zealand and overseas." It has a focus on personalisation and has a range of caskets decorated with prints.

Return to Sender won the 2012 Sustainable Design & Innovation Award at the NZI National Sustainable Business Network Awards.

With a complete focus on personalisation, Mother and daughter Donna and Tia Waiariki of Know the Flax (knowtheflax.co.nz) , produce one off hand-woven flax caskets. Go Willow! (gowillow.co.nz) handweave willow caskets, and EcoCoffins (ecocoffins.co.nz) offer traditional looking cardboard caskets.

According to Blackham, councils have proved a challenge to convince with concerns around cost and a fear of the unknown. Natural burial or not, Blackham feels that Councils need to acknowledge and meet the demand for choice in death that people are asking for, "It's about bringing death closer to life and making us more comfortable with it," he says. For those who are unable to access a natural burial site, a more sustainable send-off is still within reach. The Good Funeral Guide's Tamara Linnhoff recommends to:"ensure that, where feasible, wishes are discussed and recorded, talk to your funeral director about sustainable options, and research online, to ensure a farewell appropriately respectful of one's sustainable choices during life."

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