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More and more people are rethinking traditional burial methods. Fathima Simjee asks why – and what constitutes a ‘natural’ burial? 

Reduce, reuse, recycle: a common mantra we hear often and usually apply to the waste we create. But it seems the trend for reducing our carbon footprint is extending beyond our daily lives and following us to our graves, at least for people who choose to have a natural burial.

In a natural burial, the deceased person is buried in a way that doesn’t inhibit decomposition and allows the body to be recycled naturally, so it has as little negative impact on the environment around it as possible. Natural burial grounds contain only local species of trees and flowers, have no gravestones or other memorials and don’t have manicured lawns or kept flowerbeds, to ensure they are as low maintenance as possible.

“People like to think that the nutrients in their body will be recycled and will be of some use to the soil, and the fauna and flora that the soil supports,” explains Rosie Inman-Cook, manager of the Natural Death Centre, a UK-based educational charity that assists bereaved families with funeral and burial information.

She explains that the Centre was started in 1991 and grew out of the natural birth movement. As its founders were having children of their own, they supported the idea of being more in control of their body during childbirth but felt that something similar was missing for the end of life. Consequently, the Natural Death Centre was born. “We want to give people power over their own burial or that of a loved one through informed choice,” says Inman-Cook, adding: “Many people don’t know what really happens to their bodies when they are prepared for burial and after they are buried.”

She’s referring to embalming, a method of temporary preservation using formaldehyde-based chemicals. “There’s a lot of heated and sometimes unpleasant debate about embalming and its impact on the environment,” explains Dr Julie Rugg, Senior Research Fellow with the Cemetery Research Group at the University of York. “The green burial movement questions the need for it, and the funeral industry considers embalming and cosmetic preparation of the dead as something that is demanded by the bereaved. It’s a very contentious issue.”

Those who support natural burials believe embalming is an unnecessary and violent act against a dead body, and say it’s bad for the environment because the chemicals are released into the ground as the body decomposes. Inman-Cook also argues that it prevents families from starting the grieving process: “The bodies become hard like plastic and artificial looking. If you bury somebody and they look dead, it helps you accept that they have died. If you see somebody who looks vibrant and healthy, you are going to be psychologically at odds and it doesn’t help with grieving.”

Inman-Cook believes that seeing your loved one after they have been cosmetically prepared for a funeral causes a psychological condition called cognitive dissonance, which is a state of mental stress caused by holding two contradictory beliefs (in this case, seeing a loved one looking healthy while trying to come to terms with them being dead). She believes the practice is unnecessary and should be scrapped entirely. “With proper refrigeration, a dead body can remain [appropriate for viewing] for as long as ten days,” she argues, “so even if you can’t have a funeral immediately, there is still plenty of time.”

It’s not just embalming that raises environmental concerns for supporters of the natural burial movement, but everything that goes into the ground with the body. According to the movement, coffins, caskets or shrouds should also be completely biodegradable: “People [should be] dressed in natural fibres…make sure that no plastics are going in the ground. No mobile phones or batteries, things that can leech into the soil and potentially affect the ground water,” says Inman-Cook. Natural buriers also encourage the use of shallow graves because, they argue, they improve the bodies’ access to oxygen, which can help to speed up the decomposition process and reduce the prolonged release of methane gas into the environment.

It’s certainly not a new or ground-breaking burial practice, however. Islam and Judaism have both prescribed very similar burial practices for centuries. The rise in popularity of the practice in recent years, according to Rugg, may be the result of many factors, such as the increasing cost of funerals, running out of traditional burial space in cemeteries, or other ethical or spiritual concerns. “There’s a wide range of rhetoric, beliefs and spirituality that people bring to green burials,” she explains. “Some people see it as a return to the Earth in a more natural environment – the feeling that your body contributes to the growing of a tree. The rhetoric around green burial feeds into a spiritualised conception of nature, and people find that comforting.”

For Inman-Cook, it’s the idea of being part of a cycle that’s been ongoing for millennia. “My dad, when he was around, took much glee in telling me that there were atoms inside my body that were once inside a dinosaur or part of a star. It all goes around. I think some of my clients also like the idea that you’re going to be completely recycled, and your atoms will be falling down as leaves from a tree in the autumn.”

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