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Cardboard coffin, shroud, unmarked grave: push for more natural ending at end-of-life

Supporters of so-called ‘natural death’ practices are pushing for a revamp of Australia’s end-of-life customs, hoping to pave the way for wider acceptance of things such as home dressings and cemeteries that offer simple burial options.

Words and pictures by Danielle Kutchel
 
Civil celebrant Sally Cant at Lilydale Memorial Park, which has set aside ground where families can choose to bury their loved one in a shroud in a shallow, unmarked grave.

Civil celebrant Sally Cant at Lilydale Memorial Park, which has set aside ground where families can choose to bury their loved one in a shroud in a shallow, unmarked grave.

They want options to include alternatives to the tightly-controlled practices of the funeral industry, such as allowing families to place their loved ones in cardboard coffins or keeping them at home for longer after they have died.

A group comprising volunteers from various sectors – funeral directors, green burial advocates, carers, spiritual and tribal leaders, and others – recently formed the Natural Death Advocacy Network to lobby for change and provide a point of contact for people interested in alternative end-of-life practices.

The organisation hopes to link people “who are able to facilitate, inspire and work with families and communities” to better care for the dying, according to Sally Cant, a civil celebrant and key member of the network.

“Baby boomers are having a big say in how things unfold in the next few decades. They are much more individualistic in their approach to death and dying. They are much more keenly involved in planning and participating in funerals, as their parents, partners, sometimes children and, finally, they themselves die.” — Sally Cant, natural death advocate 

The new group first met officially in May and has been fine-tuning its aims since. According to its mission statement, the network’s  main focus will be death education, funeral planning, family-led funeral care, natural burial and bereavement care.

Members also plan to lobby for natural and less common alternatives to traditional burials and funerals. These include burials in more sustainable cemeteries – for example, in open land without designated plots where people can be buried in a simple shroud – home-based death care that may incorporate dressing the deceased at home as well as small intimate family rituals, and conducting funerals in public places.

“Our aim is to create an informative, innovative and transparent group,” said Ms Cant.

The network has been several years in the making, with various people from end-of-life industries having met informally in the past.

The move to formalise their advocacy comes in response to increased interest across the community, with members acknowledging the frustration of clients, family and friends who seek flexible palliative care, environmentally friendly funeral options and less hospital intervention in final illnesses, as well as end-of-life arrangements that are not currently catered for by the industry or sanctioned by law.

But given Australia’s ageing population, the group is optimistic that the death industry will begin to shift in accordance with community wishes.

“Baby boomers are having a big say in how things unfold in the next few decades,” said Ms Cant. “They are much more individualistic in their approach to death and dying. They are much more keenly involved in planning and participating in funerals, as their parents, partners, sometimes children and, finally, they themselves die.”

Members of the network will act primarily as advocates for those who are confronted with life’s inevitable end, Ms Cant explained, by informing them of their choices and by campaigning to win approval from government for new options.

Nigel Davies, director of Lonergan & Raven Funerals, who hosted the first formal meeting of the network, said the group could face resistance from some authorities and the funeral industry, estimated by a 2005 parliamentary inquiry to account for annual revenues of $150 million.

“Government departments don’t like changing things unless there is a significant groundswell of support,” he said. “And legislation is usually only reviewed every other decade.”

Companies and others involved in the death industry, such as cemeteries, might also be reluctant to change their practices unless it could be shown that there was adequate demand for new services, he added.

However, Ms Cant insisted that demand was growing, as people were becoming more environmentally aware and beginning to consider the impact they had on the environment in death as well as during their lives, and were interested in ways to minimise this.

“I hope [the network] will grow into a nexus that collects concerned people and groups, collates their stories and needs, and advocates their suggestions to the appropriate government and professional bodies. Over the long term I believe our entire … system’s approach to the dying … will have to be fundamentally rethought as the population ages.” — Nigel Davies, funeral director 

“If we can take steps to look after the environment, people will look at those possibilities,” she said.

In fact, the environmentally-friendly funeral industry is a growing sector, with increasing calls for biodegradable coffins, a boycott on embalming and its use of toxic chemicals, and burial in grounds left as nature intended.

Lilydale Memorial Park, in Melbourne’s outer east, has set aside a small patch of earth where families can choose to have no burial marker, or have their loved one’s name engraved on a small plaque on a nearby rock ornament. Burials are undertaken to a minimum required depth and back filled with loose soil. Coffins must be of plain untreated plantation timbers, or heavy duty cardboard made from recycled paper stocks, and clothing and lining must be biodegradable. Burials can occur with shrouds without the need for a coffin. Lilydale’s sister cemetery at Healesville also offers a natural burial option.

But that presently is the exception rather than the rule.

Funerals, burials and cremations are shrouded in regulation. In Victoria, for example, it is illegal to conduct any burial on private property, let alone an environmentally-friendly alternative. But this does not apply in New South Wales.

Mr Davies said the Natural Death Advocacy Network planned to “bring together the voices of people who are dissatisfied or who have better suggestions to offer, and present  them as a large enough movement to be worthy of consideration when rules are being reviewed”.

Members of the group hope that the law will be changed eventually in Victoria. Additionally, one of the group’s future projects will be to create a set of natural death standards that can be adopted nationally.

“There currently are no standards for what is termed ‘natural’ or ‘green’ in this industry,” said Ms Cant. This had given rise to different interpretations across the country, sometimes resulting in confusion for consumers.

For example, a funeral company could label as “green” an offer simply to bury a body in a cardboard coffin, while other advocates might argue that environmentally friendly practices demanded that a body not be embalmed and instead be buried in a shroud in a bush grave.

The initial focus of the natural death network will be Victoria, where many of the group’s members are based. They include the academic and death educator Dr Pia Interlandi, who also designs funereal garments, and long-time academic and sustainable living advocate Dr Peter Cock.

“Although the group is national … starting in Victoria is the best plan of attack,” Ms Cant explained. “We see this a bit like a pilot program.”

She added: “Some change will take years, and particular changes can be made in some areas quickly… [A] natural burial ground may take years to get up and running whereas setting national standards might be possible within 12 months.”

Ms Cant expected the general community would be accepting of the network’s presence and the work it planned to conduct.

“We are keen on educating the wider community about options they have for sustainable and ecological responsive death and dying. We are not here to convince people of the choice they make, only that they have choices. Our group will be there to assist and refer [them] to businesses and organisations who can assist them,” she said.

Mr Davies agreed: “I hope [the network] will grow into a nexus that collects concerned people and groups, collates their stories and needs, and advocates their suggestions to the appropriate government and professional bodies. Over the long term I believe our entire … system’s approach to the dying … will have to be fundamentally rethought as the population ages.”

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