Natural burial plot (with whānau permission)
A natural burial, sometimes called a green or eco-burial, is a contemporary concept for disposal of the deceased that minimises impact on the environment. It's an ecological and simple approach that challenges what we currently think of as a traditional burial. In reality, this practice is a return to indigenous and historical ways.
In a natural burial, the un-embalmed body lies in a completely biodegradable shroud or coffin, and is placed in a shallow grave within the active microbial layer of soil. The principle rejects the idea of preserving bodies after death, instead encouraging decomposition to happen according to nature's time frame, usually within a few years. The life cycle is sustained, nourishing the eco system and benefiting the living creatures within it. Within a few years the grave will have blended into the surrounding area.
Photograph Stephen Jenkins
The esssential difference between a natural burial and a traditional one is that everything introduced to the site - coffin, shroud, clothing, artefacts and flowers - must eventually be able to biodegrade back into the earth. The inherent beauty of the environment is preserved, creating a living memorial space that flourishes and changes with the seasons. Visiting these peaceful places can help to feel a connection to the natural world, perhaps inspire a sense of wonder and offer a different perspective on the cycle of life and death. The impact of this on grieving is said to be both uplifting and healing.
Example of grave marker using a plot compass - Whangarei
Aotearoa's first natural burial ground opened in Wellington in 2008. In 2021 there are 17 grounds established around the country*. Each is different, some are in natural bush and others in open spaces, valleys or hillsides. There are no headstones, rather graves might be marked with GPS, tree plantings, a collective plaque or perhaps a personalised artwork made of natural materials. Burial grounds may also differ slightly in how they are regulated, you can find these details by contacting your local council. Rates for natural burials are set by council, and will cost around $3000.
Natural burial is a growing movement that promises to bring about a positive cultural shift in attitudes and practices around death care, not just for the environment but also for it's contribution to death literacy - encouraging conversations about funerals and empowering people to be active participants in this important and final life event.
* Natural Burials website lists the location of natural cemeteries. You can find this information here.