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Pushing up daisies

Edited version published in YEN #24 (August/September 2006)

It’s fair to say that death, life’s last great mystery, freaks us out. For the modern masses, rationalisation has vetoed death as a rung on the stepladder to heaven, the promised land, nirvana, or the reassurance of plain old samsara. Its science, not religion, that we’re turning to in our quest for immortality. Cryonics is an American technology that freezes bodies in the hope that they can be dethawed at some future point when science can resurrect them, is on the make in Australia. And it doesn’t stop there. Another US based company, LifeGem, specialises in turning the carbonised remains of a body into a yellow, blue or orange-red diamond, and has recently expanded into Australia. Other options yet to reach our shores include having your ashes mixed with concrete and sunk to the ocean floor by Eternal Reef, where a brass plaque bearing your name will surprise deep-sea divers for eternity. Why not let the Summum Organization embalm you like a mummy, Egyptian style. Or, to really go out with a bang, the Celestis Foundation will shoot a symbolic portion of your cremated remains (cremains) into orbit. You’ll circle the earth for about fifty years before re-entering the atmosphere “blazing like a shooting star in final tribute.”

It’s all pretty sci-fi.  But hey, when you look at it, so is what happens to the average (dead) Joe: a body is preserved with chemicals and encased in a decay resistant coffin reinforced with agents such as fibreglass, steel and plastic. No doubt anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one will agree that we can better accept and come to terms with death by seeing, touching and spending time with the body of a loved one post mortem. But do we really need to pump a body full of preservatives in order to make it look as life like as possible for as long as possible?

Well, no. In Australia, preserving is not mandatory. A Death Certificate or Life Extinct Form must be signed by a doctor, but, provided bodies are kept relatively cool and handled carefully, there is no health risk from choosing not to preserve. Likewise, there is no requirement that bodies be encased in reinforced, decay resistant caskets. Surprised?  Me too. As a society, our out of sight out of mind attitude towards death means that we are blissfully unaware of post mortem practices and related legislation until circumstances force them upon us. In the throes of the shock, grieving and emotional distress we experience with the death of someone dear to us, we are hardly best placed to make well-considered, informed consumer choices. Hands up who’s been on a coffin shopping spree lately?

Death has become something unfamiliar, a distasteful, intimidating occurrence to be removed and disguised as quickly as possible.  The age-old practice of ‘laying out the dead’ – washing, dressing and singing to the deceased, has been replaced by the visit of an undertaker, who removes the rawness of death, treats it with preservation, dressing, and makeup, and creates a liminal viewing space for family and friends to visit. Today, calling an undertaker is usually the first thing to do when dealing with a death. Their services make it a difficult time easier. They tell us gently what we need, how to cope. We don’t ask questions. It’s emerging that current post mortem practices pose significant health risks to the living and to the environment…as if death isn’t heavy enough!

Heavy fact #1: An undertaker embalms a corpse with a mixture that includes formaldehyde, a potent human carcinogen that can cause flu-like symptoms, rashes, asthma, neurological illness, and several types of cancer, and glutaraldehyde, a toxic chemical that can cause severe irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and may induce nausea, headaches, drowsiness, and dizziness. Hospital and funeral home workers involved in embalming have a 30 per cent greater chance of catching cancer of the throat, nose or pharynx.

Heavy fact #2: 27 per cent of bodies are buried.  It takes just two to three years for preserving substances, volatile compounds known to contribute to smog, ozone depletion and global warming, to start seeping into the soil and water aquifers surrounding a cemetery. The UK’s Environment Agency has estimated that embalmed bodies leach about 40mg of formaldehyde effluent per litre of groundwater in the first year alone. Formaldehyde above a certain level in the water supply poses a significant human health risk, and has been found to be highly toxic to aquatic life.

Heavy fact #3: 73 per cent of bodies are cremated.  According to the EU, 12 per cent of the UK’s atmospheric dioxins resulting from combustion come from crematoria.  Dioxins have been linked to skin lesions and altered liver function, to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, endocrine and reproductive functions, and to several types of cancer.

But things are changing. A new, ecologically sound trend in the treatment and interment of dead bodies is slowly taking root. Termed natural, eco or environmental burials, the movement represents a shift away from our social denial of the reality of death. Bodily decomposition and decay is facilitated by not preserving bodies, and burying them in a simple, biodegradable cardboard coffin or shroud.  A relatively recent phenomenon, eco burials are the latest quill in the green movements’ increasingly feathered cap.  The first natural burial site was established in the UK in 1993, and there are now more than 100 spread across the isles. The first site in Australia, Bushland Burials (, was established in Hobart, Tasmania in 2003, and has been met with overwhelming interest and support, both from the local community and the Australian funeral industry.  “We had calls from Canberra, Queensland, New South Wales, all over.  Canberra and New South Wales both have sites going now,” says Stephen Jacques. 

At Bushland Burials there are no vaults, no embalming or preserving, no durable coffins and linings permitted. No memorials or structures. No herbicides. No plastic flowers. No skateboards! Just a body, treated in a ecologically friendly way, cased in a coffin made of plain or untreated pine, chipboard or heavy duty cardboard, and native plants from an approved list planted on the site. It’s all about “enabling people to be at one with the natural environment”, and “making small footprints on the bushland area”, says Jacques.

Not everyone thinks an eco-approach is necessary. Dr Boyd Dent of the University of Technology in Sydney has been studying cemetery groundwater for the past ten years.  “I’m not aware of a link of formaldehyde to cemetery groundwater in Australia, but there isn’t a lot of data. There have only been three studies done worldwide that I’m aware of…it’s an area that’s crying out for research.”  He reckons there’s “bugger all risk” – as the main dangers to human health are when cemeteries are located close to groundwater used for drinking – “and I can’t think of any in Australia off the top of my head.”  He also thinks the funeral industry talks up the need for preserving because it dramatically increases their profit margins – “we’re being sold a pup.”

A nice lady called Cathy at Bell Funeral Services in Victoria told me that the family’s wishes take precedence: “We always check with the family to see if they have any preferences for embalming.”  Michael Tobin of Tobin Brothers told me: “I’m not interested in talking to you…and besides, I’ve got people with me.” I didn’t ask, but I’m guessing they were of the living, breathing, hearing kind.  Someone else at a parlour in Sydney was more cooperative, though asked that she remain anonymous.  She had heard of environmentally friendly post mortem practices, and felt that her company would be able to cater for clients who requested this.  She stressed that “When people call us, they’re not concerned about the environment. They’re concerned about Aunty, and what’s going to happen to her.”

Well, that’s fair enough.  But in this time of longevity and terminal illness, playing an active role in the planning and management of a funeral can assist people with accepting that death is near.  (Heavy fact #4: one in three people in the Western world will develop cancer in their lifetime. That’s a lot of mortality to contemplate). It also means that people can make informed, rational consumer choices, and starts to explain the rising interest in eco-friendly post mortem practices.  Jacques told me: “Often a natural burial is one that has been planned in advance, by someone who has embraced the inevitability of their own death and wants to do it their way.” (Heavy fact #5: death is inevitable).

Letting nature take its course. It seems so…simple.  The parallels between the eco burial movement and other aspects of the green movement, such as organic farming and recycling, are obvious.  All have emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century as alternatives to the intensification of human behaviour on the natural environment, and the emergence of evidence that our footsteps are not treading as lightly as they should to ensure that modern living is sustainable.  All are movements that began local and went global, pushed forward by a dedicated core of activists, movers and shakers who want to make things happen. And all are growing and taking hold in the mainstream as people gain awareness and begin to exercise their consumer and behavioural choices. Bushland Burials, LifeArt and their international peers represent not only a new era of openness towards the subject of death, but a very real way in which we can be sure to live and die a la De La Soul: pushing up daisies for years to come.