Tech-savvy baby boomers living death to the fullest

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By Chris Johnston

Jane Grover, Southern Metropolitian Cemeteries Trust chief executive officer, photographed next to the ‘new age’ section of the Springvale cemetery which caters for baby boomer burials.

This week at the Bunurong Memorial Park – a big cemetery out near Dandenong – earthmovers were starting to build a road to an on-site redgum forest which, in less than a year, will host the newest of Australia’s new-age burials.

Forest or ‘woodland’ burials on the grounds of existing cemeteries, with the body in a shroud or light covering, are also gaining popularity in other states.

It is seen as a more natural or environmentally friendly option than being buried deep down in a heavy coffin – especially for the technologically savvy, environmentally friendly and wealthy baby boomers, who will soon start dying.

From early next year at the revamped Bunurong, families of those buried in the redgums with no gravestone and moss and grass growing over them in time will be able to track the body by GPS.

The ten-cent-coin-sized GPS trackers will be encased in a plastic capsule and attached to the  shroud. As the shroud and body decompose the tracker remains in the ground and visitors can find the burial site through an app on a mobile phone or other device.

New trends in burial and memorialisation will become more common as the generation that says it changed life also goes about changing death. The oldest post-war baby boomers – born between 1946 and 1964 – are now 69. Their demise is, if not imminent, then at least looming.

And it will be a busy time for the death industry. According to veteran Sydney funeral director Dale Maroney, the chief executive officer of Walter Carter Funerals, it will be “a boomtime – the work has to come.”

According to Bunurong’s chief executive officer Jane Grover​ the death of the baby boomers will be “a 20-year cycle of significantly increased death rates.” There are 5.5 million baby boomers in Australia holding 40 per cent of the country’s personal wealth. By 2020 it is forecasted that half the country’s population will be over 65. Advances in medicine and better lifestyles mean they will live longer but when they begin dying it will be in big numbers.

“The industry has been waiting a while and we are still waiting,” says Maroney.

Industry leaders say that traditional methods of interment and memorialisation will fade away as the more adventurous, emotionally intelligent baby boomers face death. This is why Australian cemeteries like Bunurong, Lismore Memorial Park in New South Wales and Kingston in Hobart are getting ready for them now.

In Victoria, since 2010, cemeteries on Crown Land need to be self-sufficient as not-for-profit enterprises. They get no state money. A traditional burial with headstone costs between $3500 and $20,000. A cremation, more popular but environmentally less friendly, costs around $1000. A so-called ‘green burial’ in a shroud under a cemetery tree will cost around $4500 at Bunurong from next year, according to Grover.

She says while older generations tended to be only concerned with the “mechanics” of death – a “just bury me” attitude – younger baby boomers are more interested in “the art of dying well.”

Guilt over environmental issues such as climate change during their lifetime contributes to demand for ‘green burials,’ she says.

As well as the GPS trackers, discrete bird boxes on trees denoting burial sites are available. The road in to the Bunurong redgum stand will be kept as dirt, Grover says, to give a feeling of “authentic and undisturbed” forest. She says the burials would be shallow at 1.2 metres which allows better decomposition. Bodies in heavy caskets buried deep tend to putrefy rather than decompose.

Sydney’s Dale Maroney says QR readers (similar to a barcode) are also tipped to be popular. At headstones or  burial sites visitors can scan the code and get data or information on the dead person relayed to devices. The time between death and a funeral is also expected to lengthen as baby boomers begin to die and funerals and interments become more informal but also more technologically complex.

“Baby boomers broke the rule book through things like gender politics, the pill and conscription,” Grover says. “They have a sense of freedom and that is true even in death.”
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