“Taking responsibility for what happens to us at the time of our death is our final gift to the earth”, David Holmgren, Retrosuburbia
Composting is composting – we know how it works. Could permaculture systems include composting us, after we die? That might not be so far away. Read more from PA Board Director & volunteer Virginia Solomon about making an ‘eco exit’ that incorporates the permaculture ethics.
Once I visited an industrial composting system dealing with the (horrendous) ‘collateral’ of battery chicken farming. It was a confronting experience. As I processed the awfulness of this particular composting system, it made me think. If thousands of chicken remains can be processed scientifically and returned to the earth, could something similar be done with human bodies?
Then, a few years later, some friends of mine were demonstrating how they set up their composting system. It was one of those 3-bay numbers with a cubic meter in each bay, but they had worked out precise quantities of everything and could show that it would in fact compost everything completely. My friend was a lab technician at a school. One day a fox was killed in front of their house, and she decided to lay it out on a freshly made compost heap in the hope that the composting process would clean up the fox’s skeleton and she could use it as a model in the science lab. So she arranged the creature carefully, covered it up and waited.
Three weeks later she returned to inspect the progress. Nothing remained of the fox other than its teeth, and part of the uppermost jawbone. The rest of the animal was an outline of white ash and a bit of fur. These stories demonstrate that human remains could be safely and scientifically composted.
The state of Washington recently legalised composting burial with the world’s first facility for composting burial being developed that could process about 900 burials per year. According to Recompose (a US based outfit promoting the composting of human remains), the composting process sequesters carbon and saves the atmosphere a tonne of carbon dioxide per body when compared to cremation. I have not, however, been able to find a legal composting service in Australia.
Personally I would like to be composted and spread on my own garden. I realise this is not everyone’s idea of a perfect next phase, but at present it isn’t an option anyway. What other possibilities are there in Australia, if one wants to make as little footprint on leaving as we have been striving to make during our lives?
There is a very interesting exploration of the science and statistics behind alternative burial systems in an article in the Conversation from January this year. The author, Emma Sheppard-Simms, also explores the relative costs of departing gracefully, and points out that the technology utilised by Recompose is likely patented which would make it expensive to duplicate. Perhaps there is an opportunity to develop another system? Composting is composting after all. We know how it works.
Natural burials have been growing in popularity, and there is a comprehensive guide developed by Gathered Here which directs people to funeral directors and find places or spaces in cemeteries. It doesn’t, however, suggest how one might avoid the funeral part and just arrange the burial.
Before my mother died, she told us that she wanted no funeral and no permanent memorial of any kind. She wanted to disappear and only remain in memory. Of course that is not possible as she was an artist who is outlived by her paintings, and we had to celebrate her life in some way So, we had a giant afternoon tea plus gin, and invited everyone who had ever known her, but that was for them, rather than for her. In order to bypass the funeral director industry, and in the hope of remaining useful after death, she left her body to the University of Melbourne Medical School. There is a guide to the universities that take bodies for medical education. Once again, not for everyone, I imagine.
Coffins & the funeral industry
In 2019, Australian Seniors’ Cost of Death Report found the average cost of a basic burial is $8,048, and a basic cremation costs $3,108 on average. The other issue that has environmental implications is the container in which one’s body is placed. Coffins are often made of laminated timber and sometimes even lined with lead. They have metal fixtures and fittings and, if a viewing is in order, will have synthetic satin linings and stuffing. Plywood and cardboard coffins exist, as do shrouds, and some people like to be laid to rest in other vessels such as cars and boats.
But of course the impact of the container adds to the impact of the body. Space in cemeteries is filling up, land is precious, so vertical burials are also now being practiced.
David Holmgren again: “To return to Retrosuburbia and the chapter on Home Death, I had always thought that the funeral ‘industry’ was heavily regulated but, to quote There are endless options with very few rules and regulations for funerals… very little is required by law.” It varies from each state & territory, and even wthin these borders, so it may be worth doing some local enquiring.
Bequests and wills
Planning for one’s exit and preparing one’d legacy is a very personal thing. A funeral and burial is one part of it, but there is also your will. How can you ensure that your life’s work continues, that your philosophical approach is respected and that you continue to be remembered the way you want to be? It is a delicate issue, but for any individual or organisation that has benefitted from a bequest or endowment, it is a source of profound gratitude. Many organisations, including Permaculture Australia, accept bequests, and stipulations can be included for how you wish the money to be utilised.
If you are in a position to gift a portion of your estate, Permaculture Australia would honour your gift and invest it in continuing to support permaculture nationally or via Permafund, supporting small grant projects globally. Details including suggested wording for your bequest can be found here or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Retrosuburbia: the downshifters guide to a resilient future, by David Holmgren shows how Australian suburbs can be transformed to become productive and resilient in an energy descent future. It focuses on what can be done by an individual at the household level (rather than community or government levels), including a chapter on Health, Disability and Ageing. Copies can be purchased here or via one of the PA supporters offering a 10% discount to PA members.