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Dying to be green

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Natural burial

Kevin Hartley of White Knight Funerals in Adelaide has taken the concept of a biodegradable coffin to its logical and most environmentally responsible conclusion - do away with the box altogether.

The body is first wrapped in soft cotton, then a biodegradable waterproof membrane and, finally, a hessian shroud.

Hartley has developed a unique coffin, which is built exactly like a top-of-the-range conventional coffin but has a bottom that opens like a trapdoor.

He calls this invention 'the transporter', as "the coffin is simply used to move that shrouded body through the service to the cemetery".

Once at the graveside, the coffin is lowered into the grave with a stretcher underneath; then as the coffin is lifted back up from the grave, the doors underneath open, allowing the body to come to rest on the bottom of the grave.

"There's just the shrouded body - no wood, no waste, no varnish, no metal, no formaldehyde," he says.

Most important, instead of the traditional six feet under, the body is buried at medium depth, allowing it to break down at a normal, healthy rate rather than the much slower rate imposed by anaerobic conditions further down in the soil.

Hartley launched his business in January 2008 after a long career in the funeral industry that left him disillusioned about how much other businesses focus on all the trappings rather than the simplicity of the event.

"A lot of people say I don't want to be buried in a box - just dig a hole and plant a tree on me," Hartley says.

Melbourne Uni's Roger Short would certainly agree. "I have every reason to think that we could move to a more ecological way of disposing of our bodies," he says.

Ashes to ashes, dust to … fertiliser?

"We are perfect blood and bone meal," he says. "It's a lovely thing to go and choose your tree or your seedling you would like to turn into and then there really is life after death."

Bush bound

Very popular in the United Kingdom are 'bushland burials', natural burial grounds where bodies are interred in a more natural setting with a tree planted over the grave.

There are more than 200 such cemeteries in the UK, but in Australia, just one bushland burial ground exists outside Hobart; another is planned for Lismore.

"Obviously people in the UK are keen to get back to the natural way of doing things," says Stephen Jacques, cemetery manager of Kingston Cemetery in Hobart.

"They are putting the remains in the ground and planting trees over the top to establish bushland areas where it had been cleared previously."

At Kingston, the site is already well forested, so rather than upsetting the balance by planting more trees, family and friends are invited to choose a smaller bush or shrub species native to the area that is planted on the grave.

The gravesites are carefully plotted so as not to interfere with existing trees. And instead of a carved, artificial marker, the grave is marked with an inscribed rock from the area.

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