Why burying loved ones in unmarked graves could save wildlife

If we all abandoned traditional burials and instead were buried in nature reserves, the money raised could help preserve every endangered species on land

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It’s the circle of life. Natural burials are not only better for the environment, they could also help raise billions of dollars for conservation – in theory, almost enough to help preserve every threatened species on land.

Traditional burials contaminate the soil with embalming chemicals and coffin materials, while cremation pollutes the air. They are also expensive, typically costing around $7000.

However, there is a growing interest in natural burials, in which bodies are buried in biodegradable containers. The existing landscape is preserved as much as possible. Loved ones find the site using GPS, or natural markers like trees.

The latest development is conservation burials. These use the money saved from switching to cheaper natural burials to fund conservation. Tracts of land are turned into burial sites that double as refuges for endangered native species.

For example, Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina is a 28-hectare conservation burial site. Bodies are naturally buried in a forest and planted over with endangered native species, like crested coralroot orchids (Hexalectris spicata) and purple-flowered flaxleaf false foxgloves (Agalinis linifolia). The park also provides protection for coyotes, black bears and birds.

Matthew Holden at the University of Queensland in Australia calculated how much could be raised if conservation burials became commonplace in the US. He found that, if the 1.2 million Americans buried traditionally each year instead had natural burials, $3.8 billion could be channelled to conservation.

For context, a 2012 study estimated that reducing the extinction risk of all threatened species on land would cost about $4 billion a year (Science, doi.org/mg6).

A mathematician, Holden became interested in conservation burials last year when his best friend passed away at the age of 30. “It was a huge shock and made me realise I’m not invincible, I could go at any time,” he says. “I wanted to research the best way to get benefits out of my dead body.”

The idea is still fairly new. Although there are now hundreds of natural burial sites in the US, UK and Australia, only a handful are dedicated conservation sites. There are currently seven in the US and two in the UK, and a handful due to open in Australia from 2018.

Conservation burials will become more popular, says Holden. “People are looking to create some sort of tangible legacy, which is why we spend all this money on fancy coffins and tombstones,” he says. “Maybe we can use this money to provide a conservation legacy instead.” That could provide solace for the bereaved.

“In my experience, the prime appeal of a natural burial is the return of the body to a living space that isn’t full of headstones and granite,” says Kevin Hartley at Earth Funerals, an Australian not-for-profit. “And then extending that – knowing it will lead to another acre of missing habitat being restored – it’s just lovely.”

Earth Funerals is setting up a conservation burial site on donated farmland near Armidale. Money from burials will be used to restore the site, plus a nearby wildlife corridor. Each funeral will fund around half a hectare of replanting.

Read more: Future funerals: What a way to go

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