If death is a certainty, so is the fact that the Earth is running out of space for cemeteries. Two Australians are trying to design a solution. By Elizabeth Flux.

The burial belt

Grace Mortlock and David Neustein of Other Architects.
Grace Mortlock and David Neustein of Other Architects.
Credit: Charles Dennington

The simple truth is that we’re running out of space to bury our dead. Cremation is delaying the inevitable for now, but there’s only so much land, and competition for it is fierce.

One solution that has been offered up is limited-tenure graves. This system is already in operation in some graveyards and what it means is that after a certain pre-agreed period your body will be dug up, moved, and someone else will be buried in your old spot. Essentially, you’re renting.

It’s not exactly an appealing concept. While people opt for burial for many reasons, there is a certain expectation that when you get laid down for eternal rest, it lasts for, well, eternity. Then there’s the fact that traditional burial is not cheap – the site alone can cost thousands or, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars. In addition, there is the coffin, the gravestone, the engraving, and the funeral itself.

There’s also another uncomfortable truth – traditional burial isn’t good for the environment. Neither really is cremation. Traditional burial isn’t a simple matter of putting a person’s body in the earth. You’re also putting in embalming fluid. Coffins. Graveliners. All of which get in the way of decomposition. Then, on the surface there are tombstones. Maintenance of the site. Manicured lawns to be watered and mowed. There’s an ongoing energy cost.

The cremation process is slightly better in terms of impact. However, it still uses up a lot of energy – keeping the oven at 1000 degrees Celsius, running the machines – and releases various chemicals into the atmosphere.

The impact isn’t so drastic that we need to call for a boycott, but the fact that we are going to run out of burial space in the near future is already enough to make us look to alternatives.

Architect David Neustein of Other Architects explains how their team looked at the looming space crisis and saw an opportunity. Their concept, Burial Belt, not only tackles the space issue, but simultaneously offers regreening and the slowing down of urban sprawl.

“The idea was basically to use burial to seed environmental repair – to choose landscapes that could do with revegetation, that could do with being healed, and use burial as the driver for that,” Neustein explains.

The way it would work is simultaneously grand and straightforward. Sparse grazing land would be acquired pasture by pasture. Each site would be converted into a natural burial site – “First through zoning. Then through planting. Then eventually through burial.” As the land begins to come back to life and forests start to grow, the pastures would link together, eventually forming a “belt” that would halt urban expansion.

Crucial to this plan is that it take place on sites where legislation protects burial in perpetuity as opposed to limited tenure – so bodies stay buried, rather than only having the right to remain in place for a set number of years. Once buried in perpetuity “people are ideal booby traps”, says Neustein with a small smile. “We can regenerate land and revegetate it and then if we’ve got people buried there, nobody can touch that land. It’s locked up. It’s a perpetual burial site.”

In essence, Burial Belt is a large forest made possible by the presence of those buried there. This would, however, mean no physical markers over graves. Instead a virtual memorial could be set up – GPS tethered to the site, allowing families and loved ones to have a digital tribute to the person buried there. Videos. Pictures. Stories. A virtual gravestone. Whatever you like.

Underneath all this is the idea that a burial can actually do good. Natural burials differ from traditional burials in a number of ways. “There’s no embalming, no coffin, no graveliner, no headstone. Nothing that frustrates return to the ground, basically,” says Neustein. The burial is also shallower, so that decomposition happens more quickly.

Decarbonising is another major priority – achieved through simpler burials, fewer cremations and the planting of trees. In theory, in Burial Belt, one person could be buried in a large tract of land and the remaining space filled with trees – potentially offsetting their entire lifetime’s carbon footprint.

Neustein is practical about how realistic achieving a full Burial Belt is. “Unfortunately I don’t think we’re ever going to achieve a hundreds of kilometres long, continuous forest that halts urban sprawl in Sydney; not unless I’m a benevolent dictator,” he says with a laugh. “The project is a talking point that will lead to lots of other projects that draw on some of the principles.”

It’s a concept that has captured Greens Blue Mountains Ward 2 councillor Brent Hoare’s attention. He’s been a passionate environmental campaigner for years. When I first get in touch he apologises for the brief delay in response. “I was out fire-fighting,” he says casually.

“I think it’s a really exciting and interesting idea,” he says of Burial Belt. “It’s one that’s definitely worth exploring as people are looking for low-emission impacts after death.”

He also points to cost – something that can often push people towards cremation rather than burial. Natural burial is a lot more affordable than traditional burial.

While he says it is early days and nothing formal has been put in place, there is enthusiasm in the community and he’s got his eye on a few areas of land with good restoration potential. “I do think it’s something we could act on quite quickly,” he says.

“For local councillors it’s a real bread-and-butter issue – cemeteries are one of our big responsibilities and they are filling up, so I think there’s a real imperative to look outside the square for other solutions.”

Kevin Hartley had been thinking along similar lines. After spending more than 20 years working in the funeral industry, he had “an epiphany moment” and started Earth Funerals – a not-for-profit business with a focus on landscape-scale environmental restoration projects. They aim to establish dedicated natural burial sites in various Australian locations, and will use profits from both the natural funeral services and a crematorium to work with environmental partners on various projects.

Earth Funerals aims to “not just offset the [funeral] service but go positive, get into that carbon-positive area”, Hartley says. “Carbon neutral is a term that has been kicked around a lot … it’s a good idea that gets in the way of a better one. It’s good – everything should be at a minimum carbon neutral, but if we want to actually fix up the planet and try and undo a little of the harm we’ve done, we all need to be carbon positive. We need to be putting back.”

Neustein and Hartley had been working on their separate ideas for about the same amount of time but didn’t know one another. After reading about Earth Funerals, however, Neustein reached out. “I think it’s brilliant … there’s simply no downside to it,” Hartley says of Burial Belt.

“In a sense I had to get up on a hill and look down at the funeral industry to get enough perspective to go, ‘Oh, hang on a minute, we could do this like Earth Funerals … but I think while I was sitting on that hill, David was in a shuttle floating over the planet – and he looked at it from almost an atmospheric view.”

When I ask Neustein if he would personally be happy to be buried this way, he doesn’t hesitate. “I’m 100 per cent on board,” he says. “I want to be buried in a really beautiful landscape that could do with a bit of care. And I think about all the poor choices I make in my life day to day; I think that it would be really good if the last thing I do is actually really beneficial.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 21, 2019 as "Bones of retention".

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