Forget caskets, concrete footings in the ground and marble tombstones. David Neustein and Kevin Hartley have plans to upend the traditional business model of death with natural burials – low-impact interment in land that will in time be regrown with vegetation and remain a living memorial.
Neustein, of design firm Other Architects, and Hartley, the project director of not-for-profit Earth Funerals, came to the notion separately, but are now co-operating on finding sites that could see Hartley offer the burial service as soon as next year for the cost of a cremation – about $7000.
Natural burial is the interment of a body in a compostable shroud or similar, in a designated space that once it reaches capacity will be revegetated and grow into a site of beauty. Crucially, it will also not clutter up a space with untended graves and broken tombstones.
Under Hartley’s scheme, the site goes on to have a second life.
“Its life as a burial area will have come to an end,” Hartley says. “We treat it like a state park, preserved for its ecological values. It’ll never become a burden in 150 years’ time.”
Hartley says natural burial is a way to rehabilitate land exhausted by grazing or other activities, create memorials for people in places of natural beauty and, importantly, break out of a traditional burial model that he says is no longer sustainable.
“The model of running cemeteries we run to this day is financially flawed,” he says.
“You take a finite piece of ground. You sell the site at time of death for a finite amount, but then have an endless expectation of maintenance.”
Neustein and his wife Grace Mortlock have a similar notion, but on a wider scale. The couple are currently presenting their concept Burial Belt – wide-scale land set aside for natural burials that also doubles as a suburban green wedge – at the Oslo Architecture Triennale.
“A lot of eucalypts take about 15 years to reach maturity,” Neustein says. “Fifteen years is also, coincidentally – when it’s the right type of soil – about how long people need to decompose.”
Burial Belts would also act as a natural boundary preventing urban sprawl on typically low-grade grazing land that was frequently rezoned for housing.
“It will be less vulnerable to being subdivided,” Neustein says. “It’s a much stronger restraint to development than a protected species. It’s like using society’s taboos about death in a productive way. That land is protected as a burial space.”
Hartley’s Earth Funerals is going through planning for its first 1.5-hectare site in Armidale in NSW. It is also assessing separate sites outside Melbourne and Adelaide.
Even in such a natural environment, loved ones can also have a permanent marker – a requirement of zoned graveyards – by utilising augmented reality and GPS location technology.
“You can design a memorial that means something to you but is only visible to you, your extended community, family and friends, and doesn’t impact on someone else’s enjoyment of that space,” Neustein says.
“Instead of a physical structure, it remains as natural environment. Only through technology are you able to visualise the presence of a grave within it.”
It wouldn’t be for everyone, but natural burials offer a way to use cheaply priced land on the outskirts of cities to remember loved ones, create green space and plant much-needed carbon-absorbing trees, he says.
“You can’t look forward to death, but you can look forward to a good death and a send-off that makes you more at one with the world,” Neustein says.
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