Sacred Tree Planting and Green Burials
by Peter Cock and Jill Hocking

Grandpa Greenie died a few weeks ago. Bert was an old friend who lived in a country town in central Victoria.

Local kids gave him his nickname. Bert sold his car years ago and walked and cycled around the local area. His shopping was piled into a buggy he fitted onto the back of his bike. Before his illness Bert was a fit 75 year old who composted, grew his own vegies and reused paper and plastic. He was an inveterate letter-to-the-editor writer, opposing the closure of the local train service or insensitive commercial development in the town.

Eleven months ago when he was first diagnosed with cancer Bert expressed particular wishes about the way he wanted to die. He wanted to be cared for at home and he longed to die in his own bed. This he was able to do, surrounded by his family and close friends.

Bert also made it clear before he died that he did not want his body to be cremated. He wanted his passing to touch the earth as lightly as possible and his wish was for a "green burial", for his body to be recycled back to nature.

Through his Will he asked his relatives to ensure that his body was not embalmed but dressed in his favourite old cotton shirt and woollen trousers. Bert didn’t want to spend thousands on an extravagant coffin and marble headstone. Instead he chose a simple recycled hardwood casket. The coffin was to be buried in a shallow grave and a young almond seedling planted on top. Bert knew his bodily remains would decompose and fertilise the seedling. Each year the family could come by and harvest the crop.

The green burial was not to be. There was no vacant burial space in the local cemetery and no other reasonable options, so his relatives reluctantly had his body cremated.

Cremation is becoming a burning issue with conservationists.

As a way of disposing of our dead, cremations are on the increase. Forty per cent of the 300,000 deaths in Australia each year are cremated and around 20,000 cremations are performed in Victoria annually. Conservationists see the practice as a significant contributor to the Greenhouse Effect and destructive for the environment. This is particularly so in the capital cities where cemeteries are bursting at the seams and land costs prohibitive. With only about twenty years of burial space left in our major cemeteries conservationists are looking at other ways of dealing with this issue which do not tie up scarce high-value land or damage the environment.

The green burial Bert wanted would have ensured the organic matter in his body returned to the earth where it belonged.

Imagine - if Bert had got his way - a family reunion on the anniversary of his death. The get-together takes place in the Memorial Forest where he is buried. The almond tree is coming along very nicely and the family can picnic in the sun and harvest the crop. The forest is supervised by a suitable authority but is open to the public. Nearby, children play under a lemon-scented gum while an elderly couple stroll along a footpath shaded by a jacaranda ablaze with summer colour.

Memorial Forests would be sacred places but, unlike cemeteries, the local community would not be segregated from the dead. As long as water pollution is prevented, memorial trees could line the banks of watercourses, and stabilise soil on foreshores. Australia’s reafforestation target could be helped by the planting of Memorial Forests, while areas devastated by logging could be greened by eucalypts and acacias in memory of local people.

Bert’s family’s attempts to fulfil his wishes for a "green burial" were thwarted. His way of showing his care for the environment was to give his body back to nature in a way that nurtured rather than harmed it.

Bert was ahead of his time, environmentally speaking. If he had lived a bit longer he’d be thrilled to learn of a British company Peace Box U.K. that is marketing an environmentally friendly disposable coffin made of recycled paper and cardboard. Joined together with wheat starch and potato flour adhesives Peace Boxes are assembled easily without special tools, and decompose quickly in the ground. He would also be tickled pink to know that coffins are now being made out of recycled almond shells. So as well as producing a crop of nuts his Memorial Tree would provide almond casings for inexpensive coffins.

This story illustrates a non traditional way of encouraging the planting of trees that become sacred and therefore very difficult to be removed. It argues that we can draw on significant life cycle events for rituals that celebrate and encourage tree planting. It argues that making green burials more possible needs to be included as part of finding ways to sustainably care for the land.

(Jill Hocking is a community educator at the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne).