Bury Burn or Compost

A survey in the UK recently found that 35 percent of people now wanted to be buried in natural woodland burial grounds.

There’s a boom in funerals around the corner as the Boomers face mortality, but neither cemeteries nor crematoria are eco-friendly. The business of burials is beginning to adapt, and so are their future customers. (This program was originally broadcast on 20th July 2008.)

LINK:  Radio National 28th December 2008


Ian Townsend: In the next few years, Australia’s death rate is going to start rising fast as more than 5-million baby-boomers approach a statistical cliff.

What began as a baby-boom after the Second World War is about to end with a 20-year boom for the funeral industry. The wave of deaths is going to sweep away many of the traditions we have about death and dying.

Hello, I’m Ian Townsend and welcome to Background Briefing.

A few weeks ago, Evelyn Green was buried in the bush on the New South Wales North Coast.

John Gough: What do you reckon, Johnno? Good spot, yes. It was a wonderful idea to go with this time, and the more we’re heading into bad financial times, the better this is for people, the idea that can do something difference. It’s being happy in the environment, yes. It is wonderful, wonderful. And the way we’re handling this is the way we wanted to do it. Hands on, family managed, and I like this idea, it’s freedom and family you know and you can grieve, grieve hanging out, you know.

Ian Townsend: It’s a sunny winter’s day in the hills behind Lismore. Her family has invited me to this funeral.

They’ve chosen a grave in the long grass beneath a big gum tree, and John Gough has made a simple pine board coffin for his mother-in-law.

John Gough: It’s the first bit of carpentry I’ve done for years, and I really enjoyed doing it again. Because I was a bit worried to get the length of the body, and so I pulled out a tape; it’s not the time to do all of that stuff. So I got the minimum size so the boys could know what they’re up to. It’s worked out well, and there’s nothing galvanised, no plastic, no nothing in it. It will just rot away I suppose you could say, like the earth.


Ian Townsend: There’ll be no headstone on this grave. Instead, the coffin will be buried with a magnet so the grave can be found later with a metal detector. The grave’s co-ordinates will be recorded, and if you want to visit, you’ll be able to find it with a GPS.


Ian Townsend: It all seems a very new age, northern New South Wales thing to do, but Evelyn Green was from a traditional farming family. She died at a nursing home in Ballina at the age of 97.

This is the first burial in a BushLand cemetery, set aside by Lismore Council for what’s called ‘natural earth burials’. It’s something that’s taken off in the past 10 years in England, where a survey recently found that 35 percent of people now wanted to be buried in one of the dozens of natural woodland burial grounds scattered around the UK.

The idea is to turn your body into compost as food for trees.

At the moment in Australia the baby boomers are still organising the cremation and traditional burial of their parents, but when they start making arrangements for their own funerals, it’ll be a different story.

Funeral directors such as Phil Connolly, on Queensland’s Gold Coast, say the industry’s getting ready for not just a big increase in business, but demands for more choice.

Phil Connolly: There’s a lot of smart people out there in business, and some of the smarter people bought out a large number of funeral companies. They know the baby boomers are coming.

Ian Townsend: What is coming and when?

Phil Connolly: Oh, it’s definitely; you see it in tourism now. Tourism operators are very focused on baby boomers. Caravan parks, caravan sales, recreational vehicles, boats, and people collecting their superannuation, I suppose nursing homes will boom after that, and then we’ll notice it by then. But it’s actually documented when and how it’s going to happen.

Ian Townsend: When?

Phil Connolly: Well I’m one of those early baby boomers, and I’m 61. A lot of people start dying around about now.

Ian Townsend: Australia’s death rate at the moment has never been lower. But the first baby boomers are reaching an age when cancer, heart disease and strokes do begin taking a toll. If you look at the statistics, the chances of dying start to rise rapidly after we reach the age of 67.

The first of Australia’s 5-1/2-million baby boomers hit that age in four years’ time. At some point in the next two decades, deaths will probably outnumber births in this country.

The Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association is getting its members ready for this. Its chief executive is Darryl Thomas.

Darryl Thomas: The industry as it stands at the moment, is very capable of handling the increase in deaths that is going to occur. So the industry itself doesn’t have to change a lot, but obviously cemeteries are going to fill up a little bit quicker and management of cemeteries is going to have to look forward to developing more land.

Ian Townsend: This is one of the big problems. Of every 10 Australians who die today, seven will be cremated, but three still want to be buried, and there’s hardly any more space left in the big city cemeteries near where most of the baby boomers lived.

The biggest cemetery in Adelaide is Centennial Park. When I arrive there’s a man at the counter asking how much more room there is in the family grave. He’s being told there’s room for four.

Centennial Park’s considered a modern cemetery. Since 1936 it’s buried 80,000 people, and cremated 138,000. Most of them are still here, under 40 hectares of lawn and roses in the Adelaide suburbs.

Centennial Park solves the problem of space by limiting the tenure of its graves. Instead of buying a grave, you by a licence for 50 years. Your family can renew it, but if you live and die in South Australia, or Western Australia for that matter, resting in peace isn’t guaranteed. In many cemeteries there’s a good chance you can be dug up again in a process the industry calls ‘lift and deepen’.

The chief executive of Adelaide’s Centennial Park Cemetery is Bryan Elliott.

Bryan Elliott: That means in the case of a burial, skeletal remains as operators we excavate down to those remains. We gather them up and place them into a smaller ossuary box, which is about in the old terms, about two foot long by one foot deep, and those remains are buried further into the grave, which allows for a new burial to take place at the original position to a new family. That way, cemeteries of this nature are available to the community close to the community, and that is a problem that I know a lot of cities are grappling with.

Ian Townsend: Like it or not, this practice will probably be adopted to some degree by all big city cemeteries across the country in the future.

Bryan Elliott: On the eastern seaboard where perpetuity, that is, you buy a licence and it’s forever, is causing challenges. New cemeteries are having to be established further and further out from the city. Which have to compete against developers for housing etc., so the more and more that happens, the dearer and dearer it’s going to be for burial. Hence in some regards, options such as cremation are going to become more popular potentially, because of cost.

Ian Townsend: Cremation’s taken 100 years to become the preferred way we dispose of bodies. The first crematorium in the southern hemisphere opened in Adelaide in 1903, and in its first year it had only 12 customers.

The idea horrified most Australians at the time, but it’s now routine.

Bryan Elliott.

Bryan Elliott: What you see over there is the traditional memorial that people do expect to see. It’s the old-style cremation memorials with rose setting and rose-bushes with a garden surround and things of that nature, but then you come into this area where you can probably hear water flowing.

Ian Townsend: Centennial Park is a cemetery, but its biggest business today is cremation. It has three cremators running almost around the clock, cremating 10 people a day every day of the year.

Some of the prime spots here have been reserved for ashes. Cemeteries make money from selling memorials as well as graves. Centennial Park recently built a pond and put an island in the middle. It’s leafy and quiet.

Bryan Elliott: It proved popular. Families were actually watching it being built, and said, ‘We want to organise a position in there’. It is only for cremated remains, but it is visually quite stunning.

Ian Townsend: How much would it cost then?

Bryan Elliott: It really depends on the circumstance. We do have positions here for up to $6,000 or more.

Ian Townsend: And this is for the ashes to be placed here with a memorial?

Bryan Elliott: Correct. And that’s for 30 years.

Ian Townsend: What would happen after the 30 years if nobody paid for the extension?

Bryan Elliott: We hope that doesn’t occur because part of our process is we are working towards maintaining ongoing contact with the families on a five-year basis, and give them the options to extend. But if they don’t, then ultimately the control of the position does return back to Centennial Park. The remains would be recovered, they would be placed in what we call an unmarked location within the cemetery, and the position would be re-licensed to a new family.

Ian Townsend: Centennial Park Cemetery in Adelaide last year made a small profit for the three Councils who own it, but it really has to stash money away for the day when it runs out of room. Like a lot of council cemeteries, its life as a graveyard is limited, but maintaining the graves will be eternal.

When it was established in 1936 it was cutting edge in cemetery design. No headstone is higher than a metre. All headstones are set on concrete beams so the grass on the graves can be mowed. And because of its licence system, it will be a long time before it’s full. When you wander around today you see blue stickers, a bit like parking tickets, on the headstones of licensees whose time has expired.

‘This position is now due for renewal’, they say. ‘Please contact the office.’

If a family doesn’t contact the office within two years, the site can be re-used. The headstone is photographed, removed from the cemetery and broken up.

If you want to be left in peace, you really need to head out of the city.

Driving south from Adelaide is funeral director Kevin Hartley.

Kevin Hartley: We’re travelling south of Adelaide, about 40 kilometres to a little town, an historic town, called Aldinga, which was a heck of a long way from the city when it was first established, but the southern suburbs are growing in that direction.

Ian Townsend: We’re heading to a site that he’s hoping will be the first of a new sort of city cemetery, a natural earth burial ground, where a tree will be planted beside each new grave.

Kevin Hartley: There’s a piece of land that’s owned by the State Government which is just north of the original Aldinga township, and the area has been vacant for years, it’s been talked about as being a buffer zone between the suburbs and the township.

Ian Townsend: Kevin Hartley’s been in the funeral business for 25 years and earlier this year, he started White Knight Funerals. He’s been burying people in biodegradable shrouds since January.

A few months ago he was on the ABC television program The New Inventors, with a coffin he invented called the ‘Transporter’. Most State laws say you have to be taken to your grave in a coffin, but they don’t say you have to be buried in one. Kevin Hartley’s exploiting this loophole.

Kevin Hartley: I took in fact one of these bizarre, elaborate American coffins which I’ve got to say look fantastic, but they’re made out of sheet metal, heavier than the average motor car, and we modified that so it has a trapdoor device in the bottom, through which at the end of the service the body slowly lowers under gravity, a lowering device, and over a period of a minute, ends up at rest in the bottom of the grave. (HORN SOUNDS) In a hurry to get to the cemetery. Sorry, what were you asking me there, I was distracted?

Ian Townsend: The Transporter, the body’s lowered into the grave. That seems to satisfy a lot of people’s I suppose ideas of what should happen.

Kevin Hartley: Look, it meets all the legal criteria for a start, but what I discovered when we first did this was the difference. And the difference is that these funerals feel different to any funeral I’ve ever been to, because there’s zero pretence, and there’s zero façade. What you’re seeing is what you’re getting, and I’ve said to you I think that the funeral industry is a bit of a façade. It’s all just show for the day, whereas when you get to the end of a funeral and you’re standing around that grave and you look down and there’s a shrouded body there that you know is there, you know that’s the relative, and as a lady said to me just very recently at a funeral, she went to say goodbye to her sister, and she said, ‘And I really can say goodbye, because she’s just and I know it.’

Ian Townsend: The site we’re driving to is Kevin Hartley’s dream cemetery. There are a couple of cemeteries around the country that do offer bushland burials in shrouds or eco-coffins, such as the Lismore BushLand Cemetery and the Kingston Cemetery in Tasmania, but there’s nothing on the scale of what Kevin Hartley’s planning.

We’re approaching a bare, windswept hill on the edge of Adelaide, which he hopes one day will be a forest, fertilised by the remains of nearly 30,000 people.

Kevin Hartley: But when you think about it, if you bury a body in a medium-depth grave, not shallow, not six foot in the ground necessarily, you’re burying it at a point where it will actually decompose naturally. Quite the contrary if you put a body in a plastic lined box where the decomposition naturally is limited by the barrier of the plastic, what in fact you get – and it’s a terrible term – it’s putrefaction, it’s rotting. Because not only is it sealed in a box but at a six foot depth you’re down through the zone where you’re into an anaerobic area. So you’ve got a situation, I would suspect that from a health point of view or a bacteria point of view, you’d actually have a much worse problem sealed away in that six foot down plastic-lined one-room apartment under the ground, than you ever would by returning that body directly into the ground would it could decompose naturally. We’ve arrived!

A few pine trees have been planted down the middle there for a windbreak because as soon as they knocked all the trees down, they realised all the wind would blow the soil away. So here we stand.

Ian Townsend: Here, on this hill, there’ll be nothing but a tree to mark each grave, and we’re left to imagine nearly 30,000 people lying beneath us.

Kevin Hartley: We can bury that way, and we can bury that way, and it goes on all the way down to that road. There’s about 28-1/2 hectares here. At approximately 1,000 burials per hectare, you’re talking about 28-1/2-thousand interments. And all of those interments would be permanent, and by the time it’s all done what you have here would be the most beautiful, natural piece of shrub and bush, not unlike what you see behind you.

Ian Townsend: Kevin Hartley’s been thinking about it since Christmas two years ago.

Kevin Hartley: That Christmas when I was asked this question, What are you going to do with yourself when you die, Kevin? OK, the choice of a natural earth burial was an emotional one for me because I’d run a crematorium, and without going into the details, I’d never be cremated, it’s just unpleasant. It’s violent, it’s unnecessary. And I hate the idea of being buried in a box. I’ve seen the results and looked at the insides of coffins and thought, Wow, why would you put a person inside a plastic-lined box? They’re not going to decompose. So I got to the idea of a natural earth burial via an emotional route. But once I get there, I then see the environmental benefit of it.

Ian Townsend: Presumably you were in a reasonably lucrative part of the industry where you had a crematorium. Why did you decide then to move over, was it all emotional, or is there a real niche here that you can make money out of?

Kevin Hartley: I can make a fair living out of this. This is a business; I’ve got to make a profit. I’ve got to pay people, pay the rent, make enough to eat food. The profit’s got to be fair though. I know in some niches of the market it’s possible to make five, six, eight, $10,000 straight profit on the sale of an elaborate coffin. That just simply doesn’t wear well with me, personally.

Ian Townsend: Kevin Hartley.

We’re all being bombarded with messages to save energy and water, reduce carbon, and recycle.

It’s a message that Centennial Park Cemetery back in the Adelaide suburbs is taking so seriously, that it commissioned a study earlier this year to see how big a carbon footprint is left by death.

Bryan Elliott.

Bryan Elliott: I can say that on the day of a cremation here at Centennial Park, a cremation generates 160 kilos of CO2. On the day of a burial we generate 39 kilos of CO2, so on the day the CO2 emissions are one quarter for a burial. Over the long term of the licence for a burial, the environmental impact of a burial is in actual fact higher long term, than a cremation, and that is because of the maintenance factor in a cemetery like Centennial Park, where we mow and go back over the 50 years of the licence, and all of that labour cost, etc., has got an environmental footprint as well.

Ian Townsend: But this study also has shown that natural earth burial is a bit more carbon friendly, and that’s something you can sell. If you have a cemetery that’s just bush, that you don’t need to mow, where burial’s cheap and carbon can be offset by planting trees, then it might even be possible to make money, or at least avoid an everlasting cost for mowing the lawn and watering the roses.

Centennial Park’s already looking at sites in the Adelaide Hills for its own natural earth burial ground.

Bryan Elliott: There’s a few challenges, a few questions marks. What happens if there’s a bushfire and all the trees burn down? So there’s all of those sort of questions that we have to address as part of all of that. But we’re looking at those sort of thing as part of accommodating those different choices and a different awareness that the generations now have.

Ian Townsend: Most Australians choose cremation. In Queensland, nine out of ten funerals end with cremation, and burial has become almost a curiosity.

It might be because many of the 1,000 people who move to Queensland every week are retirees. Just over a million baby boomers live in Queensland, and two-thirds of them live between the Sunshine and Gold Coasts.

One of the biggest industries on this coastal strip is retirement housing. Another is funerals.


Newhaven Funerals is owned by Phil Connolly, who over 30 years has seen some dramatic changes in what people want when they die. He says it isn’t the baby boomers who’ve been embracing cremation, but their parents.

Phil Connolly: They’d probably experienced a lot of grief and a lot of death during the Second World War, and that’s when cremation really came into its own, and when those people started to pass away. So I don’t think you can blame the baby boomers for that. Anything else, but not that.

Ian Townsend: He’s taking me on a tour, starting in the chapel upstairs.

Phil Connolly: OK, when the funeral service is over or very near the end, the minister who’s standing up here, just pushes a button and it just slowly goes down.

Ian Townsend: Could you push the button? Is that possible?

Phil Connolly: How about you pushing the button? Have you ever done that?

Ian Townsend: No, I’ve not. I’ve cut the umbilical cord of my babies, but I haven’t been at the other end. There we go.

The body is lowered to the mortuary downstairs.

Phil Connolly: At the moment there’s three in the waiting room, you might say. They’ve had their funeral service. This cremator here is almost finished, this one is finished and this one here is finished as well. So by another two hours there won’t be any in there. But in the meantime there’ll be – there’s no hearses there, so they’ll be coming back from funeral services with other coffins which will then go into the cremation.

Ian Townsend: What powers them?

Phil Connolly: This is gas, LPG gas. There’s big tanks outside where this comes in. I’ll show you in here. Have a look how clean that is. You know, there’s nothing else in there, see they’re all bone chips and you see they’re still red hot, so that one’s only just been finished.

Ian Townsend: Around 100,000 bodies are cremated in Australia every year. We’ve become used to cremation. It all seemed quite practical and even environmentally sound. But now that we’re prepared to put a price on carbon, it might not be so cheap.

Phil Connolly: I’ve just been to a conference in America and it was almost dominated by presenters that made presentations that were all leaning and slanted towards eco. One of those presenters was a cremator manufacturer who’s invented a gadget that for $10,000 you can put on every cremator, and it creates a lesser of a carbon footprint. Because although the cremation process really doesn’t do a lot of harm to the environment, it does some. And if you can be seen to be doing less, well people perhaps would like it more. And more and more people are getting into the green environment, so to speak.

Ian Townsend: In fact, Phil Connolly has just changed the name of his crematoriums, to promote a greener image.

Phil Connolly: We’ve just changed the name of both our crematoriums to Eco Memorial Park for that very reason. We’re offering now to plant a shrub or a bush or a seed of some kind for every single cremation that we do here.

Ian Townsend: And as well as a green funeral, people are beginning to demand a bigger celebration when they die.


I’m still young, but I know my days are numbered

1234567 and so on.

But a time will come when these numbers all have ended

And all I’ve ever seen will be forgotten.

Won’t you come

Top my funeral when my days are done

Life’s not long

And so I hope when I am finally dead and gone

That you’ll gather round when I am lowered into the ground …

Ian Townsend: The Crash Test Dummies and their song ‘At my Funeral’.

The big funerals that were popular in the Victorian era started to vanish after the First World War, but they’re now coming back.

Brisbane’s largest and oldest cemetery is at Toowong. It’s a sprawling cemetery on a series of hills now surrounded by suburbs. It’s owned and maintained by Brisbane City Council but it has, like many old cemeteries, an enthusiastic group of volunteers that try to preserve the surprising amount of history here.

Hilda Maclean is a member of the Friends of the Toowong Cemetery and she’s just returned from England where she’s been studying how cemeteries over there are being used.

Hilda Maclean: A lot of the funeral directors are getting their horses back and their horses and the hearses. A lot of people actually want to go out with the big Victorian-era funeral. And in London’s East End, where the traditions were the last to die, they’re sort of back with a vengeance. However so they’re now in the big Victorian-era funeral. But the commitment is still ending with the cremation in most cases because of the lack of affordable burial space anywhere within the Home Counties.

In Australia, children used to be involved in funerals, up to about World War I, and then it was just too much death, sadness and mourning etc. The children used to be the pallbearers in Victorian-era funerals. Now the pall was the cloth that covered the coffin, not the coffin itself, because you had coffin bearers and you had pallbearers, but these days we tend to use the word ‘pallbearer’ when we actually mean a coffin bearer. And then children just disappeared from funerals. But nowadays children are considered to be a vital part of a funeral service and they participate.

Ian Townsend: So that’s come back?

Hilda Maclean: That’s come back. Most people think it’s something new, but there’s very little new under the sun.

Ian Townsend: There’s not that much space left at the Toowong Cemetery, but the Council has started selling plots in the narrow horse and cart tracks that fun between the various sections of this old cemetery.

Hilda Maclean: Yes, somewhere about here.

Ian Townsend: Hilda Maclean’s showing me around.

Hilda Maclean: In the 1970s the City Council administration under Clem Jones at the time, decided they wanted to make a large area, the front of the cemetery, more parklike, so they wrote to hundreds, they’ve got files of, of grave owners indicating that their grave site was unsightly, and if they didn’t hear back, or if the family didn’t make some sort of restitution, the grave would be demolished.


Ian Townsend: This is part of the perk of walking around the graveyard?

Hilda Maclean: Yes. Mushrooms, guavas, though the guavas are a bit controversial. There are some people who actually love their guavas so they can make guava jam or jelly out of them, and to the rest of us they’re a complete nuisance, because they grow in the graves and cause damage. We also have a mango tree that gives a good crop every couple of years or so, which makes excellent chutney, I might add.

Ian Townsend: Dingoes are sometimes seen wandering through this cemetery. There are camellias here that were planted a century ago, and also rare native grasses.

Unlike South Australia, in Queensland these graves are perpetual leases, so burial here is forever. At the moment. The local council can still change its mind.

The families still technically own the graves and so anything growing on top of the grave itself is their responsibility Many graves are neglected and so trees growing in the grave are pushing over headstones and forests have sprouted in the older sections.

If you have a family member buried here and there’s room, you can be buried here with them. But because most people have been opting for cremation, that space remains unused.

Hilda Maclean.

Hilda Maclean: Cut through here. Well I did a paper for one of the genealogical societies not so long ago. Cremation: The Disappearing Dead. And cremation is fine, it’s the memorialisation which is the issue. We’ve had a young lady who’s come into the office who was mad, oh, she was so upset, that her grandparents who died before she was born, had been cremated and ashes cast to the four winds on a beach or something somewhere, and so she said, ‘I’ve got nowhere to come. She was most annoyed about that.

Ian Townsend: While you can still be buried here, city cemeteries like this have gained a new lease on life through tourism.


Ian Townsend: That night, I took one of the ghost tours that have become popular in old cemeteries around the country. The Toowong Cemetery Ghost Tours have been running for years, and on this cold, wet Saturday night, 30 people have turned up with torches to wander about in the dark.

TOUR GUIDE ‘Come to us, Angel ….’

… but the trees will start to shake as well, as the breeze picks up in this area, these trees here to your left and right here, will start to move and the other trees do not. And as it comes closer, these trees start to shake violently, they don’t seem to be moving whatsoever, well except for wildlife of course, which is excellent, couldn’t have asked for better timing.

Ian Townsend: It’s all good fun, with a bit of history thrown in. We’ve walked to the top of a hill and our guide’s telling us that up here a hundred years ago, people would pay the equivalent of a million dollars for a grave with a view.

Tour Guide: As I said, it’s a Victorian-era cemetery and people would choose to be buried up high, because they believed (most people here with Catholics at the time) they believed that on Judgment Day that those closer to heaven would come out of the ground first, would resurrect first, and would ascend to heaven first because it’s the right hand of God, and they would pay vast sums of money, ladies and gentlemen, to be buried on high consecrated ground, such as this one. Down there, the equivalent of $3,000, up there a million dollars. I wish to be mulched or fed on by people who kill me, that’s my choice. And now I think we should move on. Gatekeeper – torches on, follow me.

Ian Townsend: It’s this desire for choice, whether you want to be fed on by vampires or worms, that’s going to set the tone of funerals in the future. At the moment the choices that the funeral industry offers don’t suit everyone, although they’re changing.

There’s a lot more choice if you’re willing to read the laws and do the paperwork yourself.

Melbourne barrister and author, Robert Larkins says you can arrange a funeral without going to a funeral director.

Robert Larkins: Firstly it’s amazing how much control we have. If someone dies at home, you can keep the body at home, and you can build your own coffin. It’s not a problem. You can take the body to the cemetery in the back of a 4-wheel-drive, it’s just that people aren’t aware of it. So I think awareness is the first thing. And there’s been a recent parliamentary inquiry in both New South Wales and Victoria, and both those inquiries made it fairly clear that they didn’t want to impose legislation that stopped those sorts of freedoms about people looking after a burial themselves. So there are surprisingly few legislative stumbling blocks. There are some anomalies, like the notion of having to be buried in a coffin, but most of the legislation says things like the body has to be taken to the cemetery in a coffin, and transported around the cemetery in a coffin. But often there’s a loophole. This is the one the Muslims used, it didn’t actually say that it had to be put in the ground in a coffin.

Ian Townsend: The Muslims want their dead to be buried the same day, and wrapped in a simple shroud. Australian laws have made that difficult, but the community’s found a way around it. They take the body in a coffin to its grave. The body is put into the grave, and the coffin is taken away. The Jewish community also wants a fast burial and these communities have set up their own businesses to handle their dead.

Robert Larkins.

Robert Larkins: And they have kept control, but mainstream Australian community has lost control really, and we’re doing things like having bodies embalmed without even knowing why we’re doing it. We’re buying expensive coffins, often out of guilt, whereas our values might suggest that we should be preserving wood. We’re putting coffins and having them cremated. The coffin only might have a working life of 12 hours or so. And a lot of these issues, people are just thinking about Well why am I doing this? Why am I having a heavy stone memorialisation, granite that’s mind in China, and we’re scarring the countryside there and being shipped over here at great expense because it weighs so much, the grave has to have concrete foundations. Is this an appropriate way to have our final act of love and the way we actually want to leave the planet?

Ian Townsend: Until the 1990s, most Australian funeral companies were small and family owned. Then some large US corporations started buying them up and introducing add-ons to funeral services that we weren’t used to in Australia, things like embalming and viewings.

Adelaide funeral director, Kevin Hartley has worked for some of these large funeral chains.

Kevin Hartley: I think in Australia over the last 20 years, we’ve got what’s been imported as the American way of death. I don’t want to be litigious or sound like I’m bagging, but the cost of funerals in Australia has gone up, where with large companies have now bought, purchased many crematoriums and acquired numerous large funeral businesses, and they make more and more profit by rationalising the work into single mega mortuaries that should or could be reflected in a drop in funeral costs in Australia, but the reality is the cost of funerals is going up relative to it, and the numbers of embalmings is going up. Embalming is become a natural course; elaborate viewings are becoming sold because that’s the American style.

Ian Townsend: There are some very good reasons for embalming. If a body has to be sent interstate or overseas. But for preserving a body for the few days it takes to arrange a funeral, refrigeration’s usually all that’s needed.

The trouble with embalming is that burned or buried, the chemicals are polluting. The toxic formaldehyde that’s still used here has been banned in Europe.

It used to be common for people when they died at home, to be left in a bed or in a front room, and the family would hold a vigil until the funeral was organised. It was practical then, because the people who made the coffins would undertake to collect the body and bury it, and so there was a day or two, or even three, between a death and a funeral.

The body wasn’t embalmed, but that wasn’t a problem if it was only for a day or so.

That tradition’s gone, to be replaced by viewings at a funeral home.

While there are also good reasons for some people to view a body at a funeral home, Kevin Hartley says in many cases it’s really not necessary.

Kevin Hartley: So much better to see that person in its familiar surroundings, like in a bed, than to see them presented, painted up, pumped full of chemicals and put into an austere coffin. I mean I’ve had people say that to me where I’ve met people after funerals, and one gentleman always stuck in my mind, this is years and years ago. I ran into him some months after the funeral. Obviously the funeral came up in the conversation, it was his mother’s funeral, and he just said, ‘I wish I’d never had that viewing’. I said, ‘Why’s that?’ He said, ‘Because it’s the image that’s in my mind, it’s the last picture, seeing her in that damn coffin.’ His exact words. And I’ve been mindful of that ever since.

Ian Townsend: For centuries the English and European tradition has been burial. The Catholic Church resisted cremation until the 1960s when theologians decided that cremation wouldn’t stop God resurrecting a body on Judgment Day.

Graveyards served other purposes as well.

Here’s Professor Roger Short from Melbourne University, with a line from a poem written by Thomas Gray in the 19th century called Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Roger Short:

“Beneath the yew tree’s shade in many a mouldering heap,

The rude forefathers of this hamlet sleep.”

And I often wondered why yew trees were the tree that you found in British churchyards. Yew is extremely toxic to cattle and sheep, and yews were absolutely vital for making the longbows that were the secret weapon of the British, we wouldn’t have won these major battles in France if we hadn’t had the good old English longbow. So we needed to plant lots of yew trees. And where could you plant them where they would be fenced off from cattle and sheep? And the obvious place was in churchyards.

Ian Townsend: Professor Roger Short started out as a reproductive biologist and he’s since gained a reputation for his studies of population control. He’s now taking an interest in what happens at the end of life, and has become a convert to the idea of a natural earth burial.

Roger Short: Three years ago I had decided that I was definitely going to be cremated, and my ashes were going to be sprinkled from the highest mountain in the Inner Hebrides, a mountain called Halival in a south-westerly gale so that my ashes would be sprinkled over the rest of Scotland, and that made me feel really good. And now I realise that it was just infantile, childish and idiotic. No way would I make my last emission 150 kilograms of CO2 to contaminate the world. The best thing to do with your body, when you’ve died, is to commit it back to the earth and if you could plant some trees around your corpse, you’re perfect blood and bonemeal, and you could generate a memorial forest because we’ve done some calculations which show that one tree will sequester from the atmosphere one tonne of carbon dioxide every 100 years of its life.

Ian Townsend: Worries about the environmental impact of disposing of all these dead people, whether buried or burned, is starting to test cemeteries and crematoria around the world.

Kevin Hartley in Adelaide says he thinks it’s curtains for cremation.

Kevin Hartley: When you think about it, this amuses me, I don’t know if it amuses anyone else, but it’s cheaper to cremate a body than it is to bury it. You think about that. You’ve got to put it in a coffin, you’ve got to take it to a specially built crematorium where they’ve got a furnace or a number of furnaces with maybe up to $250,000 each, you’ve got to pump fossil fuel into the furnace to raise it up to about 800-degrees C, you’ve got top have staff who are trained to do this. You’ve actually got to put the body through an industrial process of specialised fashion, deal with the ashes, and all of that costs less than to simply dig a hole and pop a person in it. That doesn’t really seem sane.

Ian Townsend: You’ve seen the figures, what’s going on here ?

Kevin Hartley: Well it’s simple in case. I tried to work this out when that thought came to me. Why is it cheaper to be cremated? And the simple answer is, it’s being subsidised. It’s being subsidised by cheap fossil fuel and by the environment.

Ian Townsend: Already in Europe, crematoria are being ordered to put filters, called wet scrubbers, on their chimneys to capture some of the carbon before it gets into the atmosphere. They can cost up to $1-million each, so cremation in Europe will simply cost more.

The attraction of cremation has been that it’s cheaper than traditional burials. If the price goes up, people might not buy it.

So funeral directors are looking for something that’s as convenient as cremation and as cheap. So far two methods are being considered, both macabre.

In one, the body is snap frozen in nitrogen and then shattered with sound waves, freeze dried and turned into dust. It’s like cremation without burning.

The other method involves dissolving bodies in an alkaline solution, breaking them down into a calcium dust, which you can keep or scatter, and a liquid. It’s been suggested that the 300 litres of liquid left over from the process be used as fertiliser.

On Queensland’s Gold Coast, Phil Connolly has a patent on a new technique he’s developed with a scientist.

Phil Connolly: I can’t tell you too much about it, because it’s subject to a patent being processed, but it will be a mixture between cremation and burial in that the final product will be able to be used as perhaps irrigation or be put back into the ecology and do some good. And the process is not a fire or anything, it’s just a natural reduction, but really just speeds up the composting process to about 12 hours instead of six months.

Ian Townsend: A lot of things are possible, but it’s persuading people that this process is right for them, or at least getting people used to the idea, and even talking about death and decomposition and composting.

Phil Connolly: You know, I’ve owned crematoriums now for 20 or 25 years. I can’t talk my mother into it. So it’s just a cultural thing. We’ll get used to the new ideas just as we got used to cremation. A hundred years ago if you said to somebody ‘When you die, we’re going to put you in a box and they’re going to put you into this little concrete square of bricks here, and we’re going to set fire to you’, you wouldn’t have anybody. It’s just getting used to the idea.

Ian Townsend: The other problem is how the law might apply to any new technique.

Each Australian State has its own laws that deal with the disposal of bodies. Hey don’t match, so trying to transfer bodies interstate, for instance, usually requires twice as much paperwork. And when the funeral industry recently took a look at how it would cope with a deadly human pandemic of bird flu, it found that the industry had the capacity to handle a disaster, but it would be the paperwork that would slow things down.

The law allows a lot of choice, but the paperwork often puts people off.

You can be buried at sea. Lots of people think that’s a good idea, but the red tape is a nightmare and there are only four or five burials at sea in Australia each year.

You can also be buried on private property. Again, there are a lot of rules, but Robert Larkins says it’s certainly a cheaper option.

Robert Larkins: I think in northern New South Wales where more and more people are getting buried on private land, that’s another example. We should never forget that Kerry Packer was buried on private land. If it was good enough for him, it might be good enough for a lot of other people.

Ian Townsend: How much would it have cost him?

Robert Larkins: Kerry Packer’s funeral cost virtually nothing, it costs next to nothing, to bury on private land, and a very small service. And of course there was a larger one at the Opera House, but the State funded that. So Kerry Packer probably had one of the cheapest funerals in Australia.

Ian Townsend: It’s the baby boomers who are going to want more private property burials and burials at sea, and natural earth burials. When it’s their funeral, the choices they make will become the funeral traditions for the future.

Robert Larkins: And I think once the general awareness rises, I’m not for a moment suggesting funeral directors will ever go out of existence, I think they play a very important role, I wouldn’t want to be seen to be criticising them. I think it’s the baby boomers who as it passed throughout their lives, whether it be the sexual revolution, or the home birth movement that grew there for a while, I think it will be this generation as we start facing death, are the ones who are likely to want to take that control and start looking for alternatives.

Ian Townsend: The baby boomers are already making their presence felt in cemeteries. Hilda Maclean from the Toowong Cemetery.

Hilda Maclean: See it’s all the baby boomers who are actually buying the plots here now in anticipation of their demise, and they’re the ones which are going for some of the new alternate memorialisations, sort of non-traditional materials, non-traditional shape, more reflective of them as individuals. And of course funeral services are becoming very individualist as well. There’s still a lot of churches in the UK that will refuse to play anything by Frank Sinatra in the church itself. I know of at least one Lutheran pastor here in Queensland who will not permit anything but the liturgy in the funeral itself. If they want to do ‘My Way’, they have to do it their way, way away, kind of thing, is his take on it. Yes, so it’s definitely more about me.


Ian Townsend: Back in Lismore, Evelyn Green has been buried in a simple ceremony under a tree in a new section of the Lismore Cemetery, set aside for natural earth burials. She was in her 90s when she died. How lucky to have lived such a long and full life, through the remarkable 20th century, and raised a family. Her son-in-law, John Gough says her funeral in a simple coffin in the bush made a lot of people happy.

John Gough: The old people, that’s why we’re taking a picture, and we’ll put it in the local paper so that they’ll get copies down there, and the friends that were asking so much about her and so sorry to see her deceased, will see what sort of a funeral she’s going to have, and it could influence some of them, you never know.

Ian Townsend: Around the world, what to do with the billion people who’ll be dying in the next 20 years is going to test the funeral traditions of all countries.

As cemetery manager be Bryan Elliott says, the sheer weight of numbers is going to force change, whether we like it or not.

Bryan Elliott: If we keep going the way we are, we will basically cover the world with cemeteries if we keep burying. We have to do things differently if we are to not litter the world, if you like, with cemeteries as dumping grounds. That’s a very harsh statement I know, but we have to be very practical.


Ian Townsend: Background Briefing‘s Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinness. Research by Anna Whitfeld. Technical production this week was by Timothy Nicastri. The Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett. I’m Ian Townsend and you’re listening to Background Briefing on ABC Radio National.



Ian Townsend
Ian Townsend

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