Environment, Resources And Development Committee: Natural Burial Grounds

29 Oct 2008 archivespeech

This speech is in relation to the Environment, Resources And Development Committee: Natural Burial Grounds.

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. R.P. Wortley:

That the report of the committee on natural burial grounds be noted.

(Continued from 15 October 2008. Page 309.)


The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (16:57): I rise to briefly to make comment on the tabling of this report, which for a long time has been an interest of the member for Fisher, who was a member of the ERD Committee. This inquiry commenced before I became a member of that committee, and I am pleased that it has been able to provide a report. I will not dwell on it for long, but some of the most interesting aspects include some of the history in relation to burial and its development over the centuries in our community. We have almost come full circle to past practices.

I will quote from the actual report some of the comments that were provided as they would be of interest to many people in our community. The push for natural burial grounds, known as woodland burial grounds in the UK or green burial grounds in the US, arose from a movement which commenced in the United Kingdom and, according to the report, its proponents were concerned about the way death had become medicalised and removed from the everyday experience. That, in conjunction with environmental concerns, led to a push for more environmentally-friendly practices which were much more related to ways of the past rather than the way that has become more common.

Chapter 2 talks about the history of cemetery design. In medieval days in England the practices were that people would be buried in shallow graves in church grounds without coffins. In the 1600s and 1700s, because of the impact of the plague and other diseases such as cholera, the capacity of church grounds was limited, and therefore a number of bodies were interred in common graves, which posed health risks to communities. At that stage cemeteries were developed with high walls with gates and coffins were then in vogue with heavy stone slabs over the graves, which was also a defence against the practice of grave robbing to supply bodies for medical science.

The next change in practice came in the 1800s in which—particularly in England and France—the approach was to build what they called necropolises (or cities of the dead), which were in large park-like settings. The 19th century also saw moves to locate cemeteries outside of crowded inner city areas, which would also provide opportunities for the increasingly urbanised communities to have some views of botanical gardens and breathing spaces. This has been the form in which cemeteries have developed in Australia.

In South Australia, in particular, in our early history of the settlement of the colony, there were a number of controversies in relation to the condition of some of our cemeteries: in particular, the role of particular denominations versus whether cemeteries should be under public management was an area of contention. Apparently there was a long period of delay in the government addressing the need for a new public cemetery, which eventually was established at Centennial Park in the 1930s. South Australia, we have been told, has been a leader in the establishment of cremation, which first commenced at the West Terrace Cemetery in 1903. This particular facility was funded not by the government but by a group of private citizens, and the desire to establish that facility arose again from public health concerns.

If I fast forward to current times, new technologies have become available. One is known as resomation, which involves dissolving corpses into a mixture of potassium hydroxide and water, which is heated to a high temperature. The product of that is a small amount of liquid and some calcium phosphate, which is the by-product of the bones and which can be crushed to a dust. We also have promession, which uses liquid nitrogen to freeze dry the body and reduces water content to about 1 per cent. The remains are then vibrated and transformed into a powder.

There have been some studies into the environmental footprint of the various forms of disposing of bodies and caution is urged in interpreting the results, but Centennial Park commissioned a report by GHD, in 2007, to examine cremation as opposed to burial. Apparently the greenhouse gas emissions from cremation are 0.16 tonnes per person, whereas a burial produces 0.039 tonnes. It then urges caution because the maintenance of burial sites in conventional cemeteries has an environmental footprint based on maintenance of the site, such as mowing of the lawns and maintaining gardens. Natural decomposition of a body is much more environmentally friendly and, therefore, this report provides us with information about a process which is far more likely to have a much lower footprint than either burial or cremation.

I note that recently the Minister for Urban Development and Planning has supported the establishment of South Australia's first natural burial ground at Enfield. That is, indeed, a site that the committee visited to discuss with them their plans to establish a natural burial ground there, and I think that is to be welcomed. Also recently (on radio this morning, in fact) there was some discussion about using part of Glenthorne Farm for a natural burial ground. Arguments have been raised against that—and, if I can find the quote, it is somewhat amusing—including, from an NRM point of view (and this is quite understandable), that, if you add bodies to an area, you increase the nutrient load of the soil.

It was stated on ABC Radio this morning that there was a general concern that school groups and so forth would probably find it just a little bit uncomfortable having a natural burial ground right near where they are actually doing some of this work, which is revegetation work, so that is understandable. I think that part of the underlying message of this report is that we have become removed from what was, in past days, a natural process whereby death is part of life. I think that we probably need to revert to some of that thought process in this day and age, instead of making everything clinical and having it that far removed from us that we do not accept death as a part of life. With those brief remarks I endorse the report to this chamber.