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New Zealanders keen to adopt natural burials

Sep 15th, 2011 | By | Category: Features, Latest News, News

NEW Zealand’s first natural burial cemetery at Makara has proved so successful, other centres are seeing the need for one of their own.

As the number of burials at Makara approaches 40, a second cemetery has opened in New Plymouth and there are plans for a third in Palmerston North.

Natural burials differ from conventional burials as the body is not embalmed or cremated, and is then buried in a bio-degradable casket.

Once Makara was established, the man who founded it, Mark Blackham, began fielding calls from people interested in setting up similar schemes.

“With Makara set up, a big barrier had been cracked,” he says. “Bureaucracy is a hard thing to move. [But] it’s certainly not as hard as it was 10 years ago.”

About a quarter of the inquires Mark receives are from the Canterbury area and he is heading to Christchurch later this year to arrange setting up a natural cemetery there.

Whanganui and Marlborough are also in the pipeline.

The Makara service is a partnership between Wellington City Council and not-for-profit organisation, Natural Burials, founded by Mark.

Jeff Paris, Wellington City Council’s cemeteries manager of parks and gardens, says the cemetery has surpassed expectations of the initial pilot scheme.

The pilot began in 2008 and Mark says they would have been happy with 20 burials, but it has exceeded all expectations.

The idea came to Mark (left) when he was a child.

“I recall having the idea as a little kid, when at the age of 12 I wrote an essay about environmental issues.

“The idea at the time didn’t seem too far-fetched, being able to be buried in the bush.

“But at the time what seemed like reasonable idea was not possible, as everyone had to be buried in a designated cemetery.”

He found conventional cemeteries to be cold, grey places and the thought of the bush seemed a far better, nicer place to go to.

The concept became a reality for Mark in his late 20s, when he lost his first child.

Facing the reality of death, he began making calls to establish what would become New Zealand’s first natural cemetery.

He talked to city councillors about the possibility of establishing such a cemetery and then got in touch with Stephen Aumbery, who set up the world’s first one in Cardiff, Wales.

“I pulled together a group of lawyers, academics, greenies and religious people.

“The idea revolved around the whole thing being turned into a bush, restoring the land to its natural pre-human condition.

“There’s also an environmental aspect in there, with everything being absorbed back into earth.”

The burial takes place in an active soil layer with compost added to assist the natural decomposition process, a native tree is then planted at the head or base of each plot.

Mark credits the council with the initial success of the scheme: “Jeff has been great. I’ve had good council support. Wellington is a flexible, progressive council.”

His original team has long since dispersed. The organisation is now run by a group of volunteers, a tight-knit group of enthusiasts that includes those who work with the elderly, funeral organisers, and self-confessed greenies.

Mark volunteers his time to the organisation (he works full-time as a partner of communications company Senate), a sense of obligation keeping him involved.

“I started the ball rolling over a decade ago, and helping those who motivated me to start keeps me going.

“Staying involved is particularly useful, as I’ve had one or two council offers (from out of Wellington) trying to do it on the cheap.

“Our plan is that when we reach our six or seventh cemetery we’ll be able to hire a part-time employee.”

Ngaire Best, the council’s social portfolio leader, says the natural cemetery is a sign of the times.

“There is a growing awareness about climate change and the need to live more sustainably,” she says.

“Natural burials are an opportunity to contribute in a very real sense to the regeneration of an area.

“It’s great that Wellingtonians now have that option, especially given our aim as a city to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital.”

The first natural cemetery was established in the UK in 1993, and there are now estimated to be more than 220 (210 in the UK, eight in USA and one or so in Canada).

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