By Claudia Long
As someone in their 20s, I try not to spend too much time thinking about my own death.
And when it comes to actually planning for the event, it’s somewhere on my priority list between becoming the eighth member of BTS and holidaying on Mars.
But when a friend — citing my love of gardening — sent me a link to a new funeral home that can compost your body after you die, it sent me down a rabbit hole of caskets, wills and burial fees.
There were so many options to choose from, which for an indecisive person like me is straight up more stressful than the idea of actually dying.
I figured, why not save myself some worry and plan my own funeral.
So you’re dead, now what?
There’s quite a few ways to deal with a dead body in Australia but unfortunately composting isn’t one of them just yet.
There isn’t yet a facility providing the service here, so I’d need to get my corpse sent to the US, and while I’m all for sustainability, a logistical nightmare doesn’t seem like the kindest gift to leave my family.
So what do my options look like?
For most Australians, cremation is the way to go, with 70 per cent of people taking the literal dust-to-dust route.
For the rest, burial is the other most popular choice.
But modern spins on these old traditions are becoming more common, according to Griffith University death studies expert Margaret Gibson.
“The possibilities are much greater than they’ve ever been before,” Dr Gibson said.
“It’s another way of marking the finality and transitioning the body into another form. Some people find it a cleaner kind of ritual and more, I guess, more finite in that sense.”
But down the body-composting clickhole I found another option: natural burial
Essentially, natural burial involves placing your remains in the ground in biodegradable coverings — at a slightly shallower level than other burials to allow for better decomposition — and letting nature run its course.
There’s no embalming, headstone or fancy coffins, to minimise impact on the environment.
So minimal is that impact, that when I went to check out my potential final resting place at Gunghalin Cemetery in Canberra, I didn’t even realise we’d reached the natural burial ground until cemetery staff pointed it out.
Dr Gibson said the natural burial ground’s ability to blend in could make it an appealing option for councils looking for more cemetery space.
“The difficulty for local governments getting approvals to have cemeteries is that there’s always that question of where are they going to be and are they going to be close to where people live,” she said.
“The thing about natural burial is that it creates kind of a multiple space environment.
“It’s much more about a green space than a death space.”
While the process isn’t quite as common as other types of burial and cremation yet, the idea itself isn’t new.
A number of religious and cultural traditions around burial call for shrouding the deceased, as is often done in natural burials, and burying the body without embalming treatments.
Putting all your eggs in one casket
Once I’d opted to be interred at the natural burial ground, it was time to rethink any plans for a big, classic coffin (what can I say, I love drama).
When it comes to what you’ll be buried in, there’s plenty to choose from: did I want a shroud? A cardboard coffin painted by my family and friends?
In the end, I decided to go with a simple wicker basket, with flowers on top if my family were ok with bringing some along from the garden.
I booked in for a formal planning session with a not-for-profit funeral home, thinking now that I’d decided where and how I wanted to be buried I was set! Ready to go! Totally, 100 per cent prepared!
Not. Even. Close.
Tender Funerals is currently based in the Illawarra, with plans to be operating in Canberra by the end of the year. So hopefully by the time I die they’ll have everything ready to go.
And when it comes to funerals, turns out there are details you need to have prepared.
The planning session went for almost an hour and there were plenty of questions that needed answering.
- Indoors or outdoors? Outside.
- Flowers? Yes, but nothing too fancy.
- Music? Sure, I’ll prep a Spotify playlist.
- Eyes open or shut? Eyes absolutely, 100 per cent shut (?!).
And that’s just the start.
It’s all a bit overwhelming and that’s before you chuck a sudden death into the mix rather than one that’s hopefully decades away — a good reason to write down some ideas, just in case.
While it’s not all that common to plan and handle a funeral yourself, there’s technically nothing stopping you.
“The funeral industry doesn’t want people to take control of it,” said Dr Gibson.
“You could actually authorise your family to be your own personal funeral directors if you wanted to, it’s just that no one thinks about that and it’s not part of the conversation.
“Part of what keeps the industry going is that people don’t really want to think about their own death, they don’t think ‘ooh how exciting’.”
Who needs to know?
A funeral plan isn’t very useful if discovered under a stack of papers years after you’ve died, so you should tell your nearest and dearest what you want them to do.
That could be in the form of instructions in your will, putting together a plan with a funeral home like I did, or jotting down a plan for your loved ones to execute — just make sure to tell someone where you’ve left it.
Cost-wise, even choosing a natural burial, without many bells and whistles, dying is pretty expensive, particularly if you want to have a funeral.
That cost, combined with the pressure and complications of figuring out the logistics, is pushing some to ditch the funeral altogether.
As long as your remains are dealt with, there’s no legal requirement for any funeral or ceremony to mark your death.
“There’s probably a number of factors, but certainly it’s cheaper, I think the cost of funerals is a real factor for people,” said Dr Gibson.
“In some cases, it can be because the nature of the deceased person, maybe didn’t want that and was not particularly into any kind of forms of ceremony or celebration of their life.”
But Dr Gibson said people may want to think of those left behind before instructing there be no funeral.
“I’m not sure whether in the long term that is necessarily a good thing because, you know, funerals are about recognising in this communal way that someone has died,” she said.
“It’s a symbolic act of that recognition, but it’s also connected to the capacity to be able to grieve.”
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