1. Current Practices.
.In almost every part of the world, the death of a family member, a friend or a community leader is a matter of substantial regret and relief can be provided by ceremonies celebrating the life of the departed one and processes for the disposal of the mortal remains. Unfortunately, the latter require either the dedication of land in which to bury the body or the expenditure of fuel for its interment. Both of these processes interact with others, including those which we believe to be causing or contributing to unwelcome changes in the world’s climate. The processes described above are the standard ones used in Europe, the United Kingdom, the Americas and a few other smaller places. Different processes such as the burning of bodies on a large fire in the open air or consigning them to float away on a river (usually one with a religious connection) may be found in Asia and Africa. For the moment, only those referred to as standard above will be discussed in this document, as they provide opportunities for adaptation and the incorporation of processes which will be generally affordable and have a less damaging effect on the environment. A relatively new process for the disposal of human remains is one called Natural Burial. The body is clothed in a biodegradable shroud and buried in an area of open land dedicated to this use, though it could be somewhere on a farm or in the garden of a sufficiently large property if government approval can be obtained. A coffin is not necessary, but if supplied, should also be made of biodegradable material. The intention is that after an appropriate time (a hundred years has been suggested), the body would have rotted away and the land could be used for other purposes (perhaps housing another body!). The fundamental issue at the heart of mortality is that every dead body has to be disposed of in some way and the increasing population is making demands on land which would otherwise be used for agriculture and other activities supporting the welfare and lifestyle of humanity. The interment of bodies is one solution to this problem, but it creates another in that the release of CO2 into the atmosphere generates very significant changes in many natural processes that affect the wellbeing of all kinds of living creatures and vegetation. The proposal put forward in this document is that natural burial will be the default means of disposal of the dead. However, burials will not be single events in formal cemeteries as is currently the case, but in the interests of economy and efficient land usage will be mass burials, carried out in a manner respectful of the dead. Locations may include parkland, farmland, forests, open country, recovered mining sites and so forth. They may be close to urban centres or far out in the country. Each site will be identified by GPS co-ordinates to provide an accurate location of the burial area for statistical purposes and the benefit of the organisation carrying out the work or any relatives and friends wishing to visit the site in the future. Where burial is taking place on private property (e.g. a farm) appropriate terms of access will need to be negotiated with the owners beforehand.
2. Relevant Features of Today’s Natural Burial service.
When a person dies, decomposition may take several forms, most of which are repellent. The usual procedure is to bury the body as soon as possible in a shallow grave (usually from 1 to 1.5 metres deep), so that the decomposition will produce chemicals and natural materials which will support the growth of new plants or trees over the grave. To allow the dead person to participate in the usual farewell ceremonies, it is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and possibly laid in a coffin, also made of biodegradable materials. The body may also be chilled to suspend the decomposition process for the duration of the ceremony. In other respects the funeral will follow the usual sequence of events.
3. Conceptual Details of a Mass Natural Burial.
In order to discuss these details in a general way, the scale of the burial must be understood. For the purpose of identifying the various resources that may be required, it is proposed that a standard burial project will include a hundred bodies. However, it is not reasonable to expect every funeral director to provide the storage facilities in which bodies will be stored until there is a number to justify the organisation of a mass burial. It is anticipated that individual bodies will be assigned to some sort of agency which will store the bodies on racks in cool stores, where they will be held until the accumulated numbers will justify them being despatched to a mass burial site. The racks will be capable of being lifted up and stored on one or more vehicles which will take them directly to the burial site, where they can be lifted up and lowered into a trench by a crane. For discussion purposes, each rack will accommodate ten bodies lying side-by-side, which suggests a length of about 10 metres and a width slightly greater than 2 metres. Two racks could be laid side-by-side, so that a deck width of (say) 4.5 metres and a length of (say) 10.5 metres would be required. If 5 pairs of racks could be stacked on top of each other, the target of 100 bodies could be carried on one vehicle. These may be retail vehicles or ones specially designed for the purpose. As a standard proposition, the crane participating in the burial would meet the truck on site, but one could conceive of a truck carrying its own crane behind the cabin, while the bodies are carried on an attached semi-trailer.
4. The Mass Burial process.
The standard format for a natural burial grave will be a trench a little over 2 metres wide, about 2.5 metres deep and long enough to hold all of the racks end to end with a minimal distance between them. The bodies, of course, will lie across the trench and will have been deposited on its base side by side after the entire floor of each rack has been retracted and the rack removed. For operational purposes, the floor of each rack will need to be divided either down its longitudinal centre with hinges at both sides, or between each pair of bodies with hinges at one side. In the first case, the body will fall vertically through the central gap created when the floor sections rotate. In the latter, the body will slide sideways to the edge of the floor section. The excavation of the trench, lowering of the racks, partitioning of the floor to release the bodies, retraction of the rack floors and the backfilling, may be carried out as a relatively continuous operation or as several separate operations. It is important, however, that a particular task on a rack be completed, before undertaking similar work on the next rack in line.
All of the excavated material must be stored on one side of the trench and sufficiently far away from it to provide easy access for the excavating equipment. Also, the topsoil must be stored further away from the trench than the remainder in order to maintain the economic or natural value of the trench location when backfilled. The vehicles carrying the racks may be parked close to the trench if they carry their own crane. Otherwise, they must be parked sufficiently far from the trench to allow ease of access for crane vehicles, but sufficiently close for the crane to pick up a rack, lower it into the trench and retrieve it after deposition has taken place.
Note that this description of the burial process is only one typical example. So long as the end result, where the bodies are deposited with respect and the land is restored to its preceding usage or modified for an approved future use, is achieved, the way is open for technologies of many kinds to be developed and used.
5. Land Usage After Burial.
The fees paid by the relatives or estate of a deceased person will be paid either pro rata or in accordance with a formula to all of the parties engaged in the farewell rites, the storage, transportation, burial and restoration processes. However, in some cases, the involvement of the relatives and other payees may not stop there. Some burial sites may be located in areas where recovery, improvement or conversion of the land is taking place and opportunities for engagement in various ways exist. The most obvious activity would be the donation of funds towards the cost of the project. However, in some cases such as reafforestation, assistance in the form of materials, expert knowledge or simply volunteering might be very welcome! Some sites, such as farms and estates may be located on private land, and opportunities for family or group visits might be encouraged by the provision of a café and perhaps overnight accommodation. Any payments made in this area could be viewed as contributions to the cost of maintaining the resting place of ones loved ones.
6. Subsequent Changes in land usage.
The location and layout of natural burial sites will almost certainly not be maintainable forever. The practical limit of 100 years has been proposed on the grounds that the human body will have disintegrated and will be unsuitable for alternative location. As a matter of decency, earlier redevelopment of a site will avoid any damage to the actual burial trenches, though they may be bridged over with foundations on either side, or overlaid with a hard surface of concrete, tarmac or structural metal. Decorative trenches may be incorporated in flower beds or median strips. If the bodies laid in the trenches are identifiable as a prominent social group (e.g. soldiers), the trenches may be buried under a sports ground or other public space, giving it some sort of identity arising from their own. As stated earlier, whatever we do to a burial site and its contents must convey an appropriate feeling of respect to those departed.
7. Communication Details on this topic.
Person-to-person: I live on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria> Arranged meetings may be held locally or in Melbourne.