December 2009 - January 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Dead, wrapped in cardboard

By Benjamin Law
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

People might flock to the Gold Coast to feel alive, but it is increasingly also a destination for the dead. Drive inland, away from the scorching beaches, breakneck theme parks and thumping nightclubs, and you’ll eventually hit the quiet, bushy hinterland that locals affectionately call “the green behind the gold”. One of the suburbs here is Mudgeeraba, a place that is becoming widely known for its cemetery.

Gail Webb, a softly spoken funeral director from A Gentle Touch Funerals, leads me through the company’s cemetery, which ranges over nine hectares. “Quite beautiful, isn’t it?” she says as we walk among the headstones. Here, the burial ground is divided into two sections: a clippered-lawn cemetery to our left, with flat plaques in tidy, graph-like rows, and a monumental cemetery to our right, where a spectacular convergence of money and grief has taken place. Some of the memorial shrines are so large that they double as stone benches.

Mudgeeraba Cemetery is starting to get crowded, though. One bird’s-eye plan of the site shows colour-coded plots in bright green (indicating an existing burial), orange (an existing twin burial), yellow (a reserved plot) and red (‘Do not use’ areas). The remaining white space indicates vacancy, but there isn’t much of it – perhaps a single row. Because of this, Webb and her Gentle Touch colleagues have, over the past few months, lobbied to extend Mudgeeraba Cemetery to the abandoned quarry across the road. Having recently conducted their first ‘natural’ funeral in Lismore, they have persuaded the council to allow them to turn the new site into Queensland’s first bushland cemetery. Here, caskets will be biodegradable, GPS trackers will be used to locate loved ones (rather than traditional headstones) and bodies will not be embalmed.

The green burial movement is growing in the UK and US; here, too, there are already sites in South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. Locals have overwhelmingly supported the Mudgeeraba proposal, and state politicians have been happily posing for newspaper stories with cardboard coffins so light they can be propped up with one hand.

As it stands, the site isn’t much to look at. I had pictured lush bursts of flora bordering freshwater creeks, but discover Mudgeeraba’s old quarry to be a dry, dug-up patch of dirt cordoned off by a sad diamond-wire fence. It sits next to a waste-transfer station where locals come to dump their stained sofas and short-fused whitegoods. Sensing my disappointment, Webb assures me that in a few months the Gold Coast City Council will refill the site with new soil and plant natives throughout. Still, if I were a prospective client, I wouldn’t be convinced just yet.

Green burials might appeal because of their supposed simplicity, but the concept is actually complicated by its double-headed sales pitch: that existing burial practices pollute the environment and that natural burials provide a cheaper alternative. Monitoring the environmental impact of cemeteries is a relatively new concept: it was only 11 years ago that the World Health Organization first touched on the idea with its 1998 report ‘The Impact of Cemeteries on the Environment and Public Health: An Introductory Briefing’. The report cited heavily the work of one Australian geoscientist, Dr Boyd Dent, who spent over eight years compiling data for his PhD on the same topic. What Dent found strikes me as disappointingly non-dramatic. “In some locations,” he says, “cemeteries have almost no measurable or pollutant effect on the environment.”

There are plenty of potential problems, though. Dent’s research shows that badly designed cemeteries can release water-supported bacteria and viruses into the ground-water system and that unwanted nutrients can seep from corpses into waterways and drains, then back into our water supplies. There’s also a risk of something Dent describes as “salty plume” – salinity in the soil, which has been created by decaying bodies and picked up by running water during rainfall. “It’s not very salty,” Dent says, “but it’s measurable.” However, these impacts are generally hard to gauge and regular soil monitoring of cemetery grounds is almost unheard of.

Money is another issue. Natural burials might be touted as the cheap alternative – you’re buried in cardboard, after all – but here’s the irony: current prices are, on average, as steep as traditional burial. “The cost is $3000 for the grave alone,” Webb tells me, which is basically the same as a conventional burial. As for the basic cardboard coffins, Webb’s workplace sells polished wooden coffins comparable in price: “Just because they’re cardboard doesn’t mean they’re necessarily cheap.” Part of the problem with cardboard coffins is that they must adhere to durability standards that were originally devised for wood.

Kevin Hartley, a funeral director and spokesperson for the Natural Earth Burial Society, asserts that no Australian cemetery currently conforms to the strict criteria of “natural burial”. He argues existing sites in South Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania are just alternative landscaping options – simply components of ‘hybrid’ cemeteries that are marketed as a green option, but remain tied to the existing administration of the cemetery grounds. This explains the exorbitant costs.

“Our definition of a natural burial,” Hartley says, “is a human being in the ground, using the minimum possible, sustainably produced resources, providing no interference with natural decomposition. There isn’t a hybrid burial ground which fits that criteria at this moment.” Hartley says the first genuine site of this kind will open in South Australia within the next year.

In this country, death is remarkably consistent; in any given year, around 130,000 of us die – give or take a few thousand – and we all need a final resting place. We all want our loved ones close, so inner-city areas are running out of burial space. In October last year, the Daily Telegraph reported that many New South Wales council cemeteries would be filled to capacity in fewer than ten years. It’s as if the housing crisis has hit the afterlife.

In the end, the majority of Australians are opting for cremation. Kevin Hartley may argue that “cremation pumps a whole lot of crap into the air”– by incinerating fossil fuels, plastics, veneers and varnishes along with the body – but many people consider it inexpensive and space-saving. Figures vary from state to state, but Ken Manders, executive officer of the Australasian Cemeteries and Crematorium Association, says the number of cremations performed in Australia significantly outweighs burials.

Still, the green dollar has a strong pull. A short drive from A Gentle Touch Funerals, you’ll find a local crematorium, which has recently changed its name from Newhaven Funerals to Eco Memorial Park. Nothing’s changed about the cremation process itself – there’s very little that could change – but the business has begun to use rainwater tanks, treat sewage on site, install low-energy light bulbs and convert its company cars to gas. The logo now features a three-dimensional recycling icon with leaves floating inside. It’s probably as green as cremation will ever get. And for now, people are buying it.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.


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