At rest forever in a forest

Karen Summerhays

“I don't want a headstone, I want a tree.” That maybe Karen Summerhays' choice for eternity but is there sufficient support in Te Puke for a natural conservation cemetery so one day she can be consumed by her beloved mother earth?

And does it need a community-led project to make it happen?

To answer those questions the Te Puke Environmental Forum has formed an ‘investigation group' to examine the concept of natural conservation cemeteries.

“The idea is to share any information we have about natural cemeteries,” says Karen. “And if there is enough interest, then we would do a feasibility study.”

Karen's looking for people who can bring some skills to the group – investigative, planning, conservation and financial but more importantly people with time and passion for the idea.

“A project manager would also be of major help.”

And while it's a Te Puke initiative, anyone is welcome.

“We have one person coming from Welcome Bay and so anyone from Tauranga and the wider Bay of Plenty can come and have some input.”  

Natural conservation cemeteries equal no formaldehyde, no treated timber and no granite, marble or sandstone monoliths. And, as the name suggests, bodies are returned to the earth in nature's own way.

It means providing conditions for a speedy natural decomposition of the body and the regeneration of a natural forest above the graves.

“You end up with a beautiful, peaceful, spiritual place,” says Karen.

Graves are shallow dug only into the active soil layer. It's then filled with un-compacted compost soil mix to allow aeration for the decomposition work of aerobic bacteria. All the body nutrients and matter will be gradually absorbed by the surrounding soil and tree roots.

The deceased is not embalmed and coffins are made of chemically untreated and unprocessed softwoods from sustainable organic plantations. There are no inorganic fittings – handles, nails or screws and minimal glue.

Plots are over-planted with native trees or shrubs and the whole cemetery is gradually restored to native bush.

And the group understands there is land designated for a cemetery in Paengaroa. “But if that is found to be unsuitable it may be an option to sell that land and invest in another site more suited for a natural cemetery?”

Karen says the ideal place would be on the edge of a bush block so it becomes an extension of that bush. “It becomes part of an established and bigger ecosystem.”

It wouldn't look like a cemetery or feel like a cemetery. There would be no gravesites as such, no headstones or memorials, no crypts or catacombs. Plots would be identified by a simple, personalised natural marker like a marked stick, a map or GPS.

“People don't visit grave sites much after five years anyway,” says Karen.

“I suspect there is a feeling natural cemeteries aren't easy places to manage, out of the ordinary; not standard cemetery practice. And it's easier to do the things they know.”

However, the environmental forum will dangle its toes in the water. “We don't know what the demand is and until something is offered up, we will won't know what people want.”

For information, message Karen at: tpenviroforum@gmail.com

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