It's about dying, naturally

04:12, Aug 27 2012
Mark Blackham
ALTERNATIVE CHOICE: Mark Blackham has the go-ahead to organise natural burials on sites which will be planted with native trees instead of tombstones.

Environmentally friendly natural burials are becoming increasingly popular in New Zealand as councils move to accommodate people's wishes. Naomi Arnold talks to the families of the first two people buried "naturally" in the region.

It's been almost a year now since Joan died, and Peter Sutton finds his garden is getting away on him without his wife's magic touch.

"She was the one with the green fingers," he says.

Joan Sutton was the first person laid to rest in Marsden Valley Cemetery's natural burial area, on a rainy spring Tuesday in October last year. It was a week shy of her and Mr Sutton's 60th wedding anniversary. She was 91; he remains in their home tucked at the end of Halifax St, a youthful 82.

The pair met in a laboratory in England, where they worked in a darkroom side by side. "Things developed," Mr Sutton says with a chuckle. "I was almost a child husband."

He and his family buried his "great mate and comrade" on an open, natural wooden tray, a piece of her own weaving draped on top of her, and will soon plant a kowhai tree on top. He is glad he was able to grant his wife this last wish; buried so close to the surface of the earth, there will be nothing but his memories left in several years.


"It was very informal, and very moving. I was absolutely thrilled that we were able to give her exactly what she wanted," he says.

"We'd been campaigning on environmental issues for most of the 50-odd years we've been in New Zealand. We both had the same desire to leave things a little better than when we came."

The Suttons are not alone. Following a trend in England which saw "woodland" burial areas growing in popularity during the last 20 years - there are now more than 300 - natural burial areas are popping up all over New Zealand.

A recent survey by Wellington-based non-profit organisation Natural Burials found about a third of the population would choose a natural burial if it were available. Aside from Marsden Valley's natural burial area which opened last year, there's one other in Motueka Cemetery which opened in 2010, with two more sites at Wakapuaka in Atawhai and Golden Bay's Rototai cemeteries under investigation.

There are natural burial areas set aside in cemeteries in Blenheim, Hamilton, and Auckland, and the concept is being considered in Whanganui and Palmerston North. Groups in Wairarapa, Dunedin and Rodney are agitating for them too.

However, there are only three natural cemeteries in New Zealand that qualify under Natural Burials' definition of a large separated area being returned to bush: Wellington Natural Cemetery, on the Kapiti Coast (Otaki), and in New Plymouth (Awanui).

Natural burial proponents say the modern funeral industry - with its embalming mixtures containing formaldehyde, paraformaldehyde, methanol and phenol; cremation, and customwood or medium-density-fibreboard (MDF) coffins in a high-gloss veneer, sealing the body from micro-organisms - is toxic, and that dead bodies pose no special or particular health risk, as pathogens die within 24 hours of death.

In the year to June, 689 Nelson and Tasman residents died - just over two per cent of the total number of deaths in New Zealand. It's a figure that has barely changed since 1999, and about another 700 are likely to die this year. Although they won't be able to choose when or why, their families now have more options about how they lay their loved one to rest.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to leave the affairs of your loved one in the hands of a funeral director; with knowledge and preparation, you can do much yourself.

A natural burial demands no embalming, and burial no more than 1m below the surface in a biodegradable casket or open tray, with nothing inorganic on your person. There's no plot marker, but a native tree is planted on top for good measure. The lack of embalming means the body must be kept cool, in a refrigerator or, in the case of Nelson man Ron Resnick - the first person buried naturally in the South Island - on dry ice in a friend's bathtub.

Mr Resnick's 63-year-old body was not nailed into a coffin, drained of its fluids, and his arteries filled with formaldehyde in a funeral home. Instead, his friends kept his body on dry ice and then dressed him in loose cotton - no zips, buttons, or inorganic keepsakes - wrapped him in some of his favourite blankets, placed him on a board, and took him to the burial site.

"I'd be the first to admit I find it a bit icky," Anne FitzSimon says. The Nelson woman helped bury Mr Resnick, her neighbour and friend, in the natural burial area in Motueka Cemetery, on another early October day two years past. Seven people now lie beneath the bark, with no flowers, names, or headstone marking their place - just a set of GPS co-ordinates.

Mr Resnick is in death as he was in life, Ms FitzSimon says. She and her 14-year-old son Liam were close to him as his nominated next of kin. Liam remembers him as "quite an environmentalist - quite aware of the global situation and a natural person".

"The service was a lot calmer than most ones where everyone's very organised," Liam says. "It was more intimate and it almost was a bit more special. The [traditional] caskets look nice, they're quite impressive; but it's a bit more open than going down in a closed box."

Despite her own initial reservations about the idea, Ms FitzSimon now thinks it's the way to go, in comparison with the "plastic" look of an embalmed corpse. In contrast, Mr Resnick looked "peaceful", and she believes more conversation about death is a good thing

. "I never saw anybody dead until my mother died 18 years ago. We should grow up and normalise it. It's hard; we protect our children and say no, you can't see them. It's this fear the whole time. Why not embrace it?

"The simplicity of it was wonderful. I think that's what was so neat - and being able to plant so many things around him. He's going to break down, he's not going to be there. We were really surprised when we went back in May for his birthday, how many people had joined him. There's a little

community going on."

"I think as Westerners we get this fear about death and therefore we try and preserve it so it looks pretty, but actually all of that embalming stuff is pretty gross," Ms FitzSimon says.

But she admits she would have no idea how to organise her own funeral or manage the body, and says funeral directors need to provide a service that empowers people - even in "conservative" Nelson.

"Shouldn't the funeral directors step up and offer that opportunity? Give people the opportunity - you can have a [relocatable] chamber, just wrap them in sheets. People like to be part of the process. There's an opportunity there for people to step up."

Yet only nine people have gone the natural burial path in the region so far. Sixty per cent of New Zealanders are cremated, which may contribute to the low numbers - but they don't surprise Mark Blackham, the founder of Wellington's Natural Burials. Bits sliced off regular cemeteries don't particularly appeal to people who want a true natural burial, he says. In fact, the organisation doesn't support the Motueka and Marsden Valley natural burial areas.

"As we try to encourage councils, people like the idea of an area that's going to be turned into bush; that's how we differentiate it," he says. "Really, the idea is that it's a separated, large area, a really nice-looking spot, and that it's going to be turned into bush over time."

Cremation? Just say no, he says. It pollutes the air, whereas your body will feed the earth. "We're the only species where the dead don't return to the ecosystem. [Current burial traditions] do various things to the body to make them presentable, giving the idea that the person isn't dead but is asleep. That's entirely unnatural."

Yet looking after a deceased person until burial is "a big job", and someone capable needs to be in charge, he says. Unless delayed by embalming, decomposition starts immediately after the last breath, and the results can be distressing: discolouration of the skin, odours, and fluid leakage.

Motueka's Living Legacies director Lynda Hannah has been pushing for natural burials here for about a decade. Her publication Living Legacies - a family funeral handbook for an evergreen world provides a how-to guide.

She says her service places control in the hands of families, and that there are potential savings of up to $5000 if you don't employ a funeral home. Her funerals typically cost $3000, with the highest ever $5000.

The average cost of a funeral is $8800, according to the Funeral Directors Association. But Ms Hannah says that's not the main benefit of going green - the family's involvement is.

"The whole process can be very beneficial to the family, a bonding and consolidating experience."

She says inquiries are increasing, but won't reveal how many she does a year. "The main thing that's changed is that I'm mainstream now. When I started it was a bit radical and people viewed me with suspicion, but now people take me seriously and recognise that this is legitimate; we have reasons to be concerned about the planet, and there is a very strong tie-in with death and the whole dying process and care of the planet."

Ms Hannah says many of the benefits of having a family-run funeral come after death, for those left behind. Two-thirds of the deaths in New Zealanders are from illness such as heart disease and cancer, so there is often time to prepare.

"Usually the families have been very involved in a hands-on way while someone has been dying. They appreciate being able to continue being actively involved in a hands-on way, rather than the moment someone dies ring a funeral director who comes and takes a body away, and then you turn up a few days later at the ceremony and watch it all go by like a TV programme, and then go home to your large bill and your empty house.

"To be actively involved with the process and have a role is very beneficial, very empowering. Death is very disempowering. You can't save your loved one from dying, [but] to be able to do something useful and practical like build a coffin, make the calls to the council, care for the body at home, help with transportation, complete the paperwork, create a funeral ceremony as a family activity; all of those things are very beneficial.

"Word of mouth has spread, and now people realise they can do it all themselves if they want to, that there are environmentally responsible alternatives to the mainstream funeral industry."

Mr Sutton says his wife's funeral was "much more personal" than it would have been if run by a funeral home, and having only people who were emotionally involved was a good thing..

Many funeral directors would, of course, support the same sort of family-centric service, or even assist with environmentally friendly options such as coffins.

"More and more funeral directors are recognising that there is a demand for environmentally responsible funerals, and are at least attempting to meet that demand," Ms Hannah says.

She says local funeral directors' reaction to her service has varied. If 700 people die in the region a year and are farewelled at the FDA's average of $8800 each, that's an industry potentially worth $6.2m; and she feels she's been seen as a threat to that.

"Some have been very supportive and some have been very - well, not," she says. "At least initially some felt threatened by me; they don't necessarily want their potential clients knowing there are better ways to do it; and that the funeral industry is not environmentally responsible, by and large. They don't want people knowing that they can save a lot of money by doing it themselves. They have no vested interest in the public at large being educated on this subject."

None of our region's funeral homes are associated with national outfit Ecofunerals, though 18 others around the country are.

Nelson business is dominated by the Day family, which operates three funeral homes servicing Nelson, Motueka-Golden Bay and Richmond-Waimea; and Shone & Shirley, owned by Christchurch firm Bell, Lamb, and Trotter; and there are two direct cremation services.

In fact, Marsden House director Francis Day has spoken out against natural burials in the past. He protested against Nelson City Council establishing the natural burial parks in 2008, saying that natural burials took up more land and were more harmful to the environment than conventional burials because of the diseases and chemicals in unembalmed humans, that they would contaminate the water table, that putrefaction of a body that was not embalmed created soil toxicity to levels that would breach World Health Organisation standards in many places, and that there was nothing unnatural about the way traditional burials were conducted now - people have been buried in plain pine wooden caskets, two to a plot, for years in Nelson.

He also points out that funeral directors are strictly governed by local authorities, and "natural" providers are not - although "they are still charging a professional fee" and actively promote the myth that traditional funeral directors are more expensive.

"Green" burial, he says, can be just as expensive if not more.

Mr Day says natural burial proponents' assertion that there's no risk to the living from a dead body is "a lie".

"Printing that is promoting the myth that when someone dies there's no problem," he says, pointing out that Aids, hepatitis and tetanus are all transmissable from dead bodies, and it's impossible to know what transmissable diseases a dead person might be carrying.

"As far as bacteria goes, if disease died with humans, history would be a joke."

However, there have been no studies comparing transmission of infection from unembalmed or embalmed cadavers to the bereaved, nor studies investigating contamination from sites where embalmed and unembalmed bodies are interred.

Southern Community Laboratories pathologist Alex Dempster said he personally "can't see the concern" with dead bodies - as long as you take normal precautions. A body that is not breathing or coughing reduces the risk of transmission between humans dramatically.

"The only risk really associated with handling dead bodies is pretty much autopsy and embalming," he says. "We've always taken the view that there is a very low risk post-mortem."

Extreme measures such as embalming are not required to prevent infection, he says, though most would prefer someone experienced handled the body.

After they buried Joan, Mr Sutton and his grandchildren had a meal, a few drinks, played music, and talked. "It was really good," he says.

"The thing was to make it personal, for family.

"I think it is a problem for many people in that they feel an obligation to family and friends, and I suppose they do what has been done traditionally without giving much thought to it. I'm very glad we did."


Funeral director's fee: around $3000, including embalming, transport and arranging funeral

Death certificate: $26.50

Cremation fee: $430*

Burial fee: $950-$1375*

Natural burial: $950-$1900

Ash plot fees: $300-$775*

Minister/celebrant's fee: about $200 to $400

Newspaper notices: $50-$150 depending on length and newspaper

Casket: from about $350 for the cheapest cardboard casket to $8000 or $9000 for an elaborate American import

Embalming: $565-$675.

Catering: from about $5 a head Funeral venue hire: huge variation with venue type; council or community run halls offer some of the cheapest venues, from about $50

Organist fees: $75 to $100

Personalised service sheets: $2 to $4 each

Flowers: casket sprays can cost from $100 to $500.

*Council cemeteries and crematorium subsidised by ratepayers

Source: Fairfax, Consumer