When natural burial doesn’t meet the needs of mourners

Natural graves in a bushland setting, one with plastic flowers tied to a grave marker.

Natural burial areas are supposed to be … well… natural. That’s the whole idea: to reduce the body’s environmental footprint and return the human body to nature. But when there is someone left behind who needs to memorialise a natural grave with markers and trinkets to mourn and realise their own grief, that’s when the theory of a natural burial becomes at odds with the practicalities.

Such a conflict is apparent at Healesville Cemetery, just over an hour’s drive from Melbourne. Despite being so close to the city, this lovely rural cemetery has a stunning outlook at the foot of Mount Riddell and offers a beautiful burial location under natural vegetation and big trees.

An area devoted to natural burial is on the sloping corner of the cemetery. Stunning, right?

A rustic fence shows the perimeter of the natural burial area in Healesville Cemetery, Victoria.
A rustic fence outlines the perimeter of the natural burial area in Healesville Cemetery, Victoria.

The whole idea of natural burial is to allow the body to break down faster and to become part of the circle of life without too much fuss – no chemicals or coffins that won’t break down or clothes that aren’t made from natural fibres. Bodies are buried shallower than conventional graves which allows soil micro-organisms to do their thing – the whole ‘dust to dust’ thing. (Here’s a blog I wrote about natural burial.) Cemetery managers [in this case the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (GMCT)], usually encourage the natural bushland environment to grow on and around the graves, making sure to not disrupt the natural ecosystem.

Natural burial grounds don’t usually allow plaques or grave markers on the graves within but do commemorate those interrred there with some sort of a plaque or monument at the entrance to the area. This large rock and plaque is at the entrance at Healesville Cemetery.

The GMCT website calls natural burial an eco-friendly burial option and has this list of some of its requirements on its website. It’s a pretty common list for natual burial sites.

  • use of a coffin or casket made from natural materials such as bamboo or wicker, or
  • use of a simple burial shroud instead of a coffin or casket
  • no use of chemicals such as those associated with embalming
  • graves in natural burial areas are for one interment only
  • individual graves are not marked with a headstone or plaques.

So, when natural graves are marked and decorated with plastic flowers, pots and trinkets, the area is no longer a natural habitat and ecosystem. And this poses a problem for cemetery managers.

Plastic flowers and a non-permanent plaque mark a ‘natural’ grave in the natural burial area at Healesville Cemetery.
Non-native plants, pots and flowers wrapped in plastic, several windcharms, hanging glass trinkets, and a Geelong Cats trinket mark a grave in the Healesville Cemetery’s natural burial area.

The people in these graves were buried as naturally as possible for a reason. I like to think that they had made their wishes for an environmentally-conscious burial clear to their families before they died. Perhaps they had even written their wishes and plans down in The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan. Or perhaps they lived their life in the bush or loved wildlife and nature and so a natural burial was an obvious choice for family.

But, as you can see from these graves, not everyone is on board with the natural burial ethos. It’s understandable. Marking or memorialising a grave can provide comfort for those grieving. It’s a way of remembering someone, of marking their existence. Decorated or memorialisted graves allow an individual to maintain a connection with their loved one. Visiting the grave and leaving flowers or trinkets allow mourners to ‘give’ their loved one something on occassion like Mother’s Day or a birthday. It’s a giving ritual that honours a life and helps coping and healing. Also, natural burial is a relatively new option for us here in Australia so there is still some education to be done about its process and merits. For someone who has only ever known conventional cemeteries, a loved one in an unmarked grave may seem confronting.

Of course, requesting someone remove things lovingly placed on a grave is difficult. Respecting their grief while upholding the ideology of a natural burial ground is challenging. But there are others who are interred at Healesville because they or their families wanted a natural burial in a bushland setting. It’s up to cemetery managers to ensure that.

As natural burial increases in popularity and more natural areas become available, it’s likely we will see much more of these opposing perspectives of memorialisation within natural burial grounds. To maintain the integrity of this evolving burial option, it’s something that cemetery managers should address sooner rather than later.

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and audio producer, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$11.99 on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

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