Crematorium & natural burial ground tours

We were out and about for site visits for Week 2 of the Eco Coffin Project. With some car-pooling, the 11 of us met at Enfield Memorial Park, run by one of our incredible sponsors, Adelaide Cemeteries Authority. On hand as our knowledgeable tour guides, on a Sunday mind you, and to answer all our questions were Michael Robinson, Operations Manager and 2IC; Terry Jones, Crematorium Manager and Molly Sewell, Events and Hospitality Officer.

Our tour started in the Acacia Room where funerals are held. Was interesting to note, and we all had a laugh, that we were all instinctively drawn to take a seat in the comfy couches.

We moved into the Acacia Lounge where, over a light lunch, Michael gave an insightful overview of the exciting things happening at Adelaide Cemeteries Authority. Some exciting things on the horizon that we will leave for ACA to publicly announce.

Our group had lots of questions which were all answered in depth and with candour.

Will you accept a body driven here by a family member who is not a funeral director?

In principle yes and it has only happened once so far. The paperwork needs to be done with a Doctor and Births Deaths & Marriages before we can cremate or bury the body.

Can a body be cremated that is wrapped only in a shroud with no coffin?

Yes. Our policy is that the body must be completed covered to make it easier for our staff.

How long does it take a body to burn?

About 70-90mins at 960 degrees with larger bodies taking up to 2 hours

What do you think about the cheaper cardboard coffins?

Cardboard coffins create twice the amount of ash as wooden ones. Think of a burning a book in a combustion heater where you end up with a clump of ash – it’s the same for cardboard coffins.

Cremators use natural gas and have toxic emissions don’t they? How good is that for the environment?

Cremators are becoming more and more efficient with the latest models having zero emissions. The newer models weigh whatever goes in to calculate exactly how much fuel is required which makes them very efficient. Also the newer models are besing designed to use hydrogen as that technology becomes more mainstream.

What happens to the ashes after the body has been cremated?

Any metals from implants are removed with a magnet. Note that pacemakers are removed by the Funeral Director’s mortuary staff before the body is cremated. A pacemaker would explode in the cremator and cause significant damage. The cooled ashes are placed in a cremulator which is a machine that turns the ashes into a fine powder that is then placed in an urn and given to the family.

What emissions from the cremator are allowed by the EPA?

There are just 2 puffs of smoke during the process

What happens to metal and surgical implants in the cremator?

A magnet separates all the metal from the ash when the ash had cooled including nails, pins, knee and hip joints, and these are sold for recycling overseas to a Dutch company. The money is used to repair vandalism and in restoration projects at the historic West Terrace Cemetery.

How deep are the graves in Natural Burial?

The graves are dug 1.4 meters to meet the legal requirements that there must be a distance of 1 meter from the tip of the nose to the top of the ground.

Where do the plants come from for Wirra Wonga Natural Burial Ground?

The adjacent Folland Reserve has original plants for this area. It is one of the last places on the Adelaide Plains with remnant vegetation indigenous to the area. Trees For Life collect seeds under licence and provide Wirra Wonga with the plants.

Do people add personal items into the coffins?

Some of the prohibited items include bottles of beer and other liquids, books, marijuana leaves. These items create problems such as glass bottles exploding and damaging the cremator, books create extra ash and burning marijuana leaves can be harmful for staff when inhaled.

Can you use your own urn for the ashes?

Yes the family can provide whatever vessel they want to use for their loved one’s ashes. Note that the plastic containers we use never disintegrate. This means that if a family wants to have their person’s back at any time we just dig up the container and return the ashes fully in tact.

Buddhist section

After the fascinating crematorium tour we wandered down to see the Natural Burial Ground. Sunday was a glorious Autumnal day – a beautiful day to be outside. We noticed the different areas with different icons, plants and headstones. There is a spot in the cemetery for every culture and religion. It was interesting to ponder how a cemetery is one place in the world where all cultures and religions can coexist in harmony.

Maintaining the various gardens uses a lot of resources because they are not native plantings and are highly landscaped. The water usage and resulting annual bill is very high. There are 25,000 lawn tablets that need to be individually whipper-snippered on a regular basis. The wide expanses of green lawns need to be mowed regularly with ride-ons. The power tools and equipment have a lot of embodied energy and require fuel to operate them.

Humans do some interesting things with our bodies driven by beliefs and cultural norms – most of them result in our body being kept separate and disconnected from nature forever. We wrap the bodies of our person in plastic (to stop leakage) and place them in coffins filled with synthetic lacy lining and soft padding (so they are comfy) made from various woods from chipboard (toxic glues) to specialty woods like rosewood that have many costs of glossy varnish and metal or plastic handles. These coffins can then be placed in a few different options such as a hole in a wall called a Mausoleum or a concrete lined hole in the ground called a vault or in a deep hole in the ground that can hold up to 3 coffins on top of each other. Even our ashes are placed in a container before they are interred in a wall called a columbarium or buried in the ground, which is a good thing because a high concentration of ashes actually kills plants.

Eloise enjoying becoming one with the creative pieces in the gardens
A family mausoleum
Outside the public mausoleum precinct offering resting places in the walls
Inside the public mausoleum precinct offering resting places in the walls

Life cycle analysis conducted by independent research for ACA concluded that 3-deep earth burials have a larger carbon footprint than cremation and cremation has a larger carbon footprint than natural burials.

We were keen to see Wirra Wonga which is one of the 2 public natural burial grounds in South Australia. Wirra Wonga is a Kaurna term meaning ‘bush grave’. The indigenous plantings come from the adjacent Folland Reserve. Bodies buried here must meet the requirements of the SA Burial and Cremation Act 2013 and Regulations 2014. Bodies are not embalmed. They can be buried in a shroud or coffin made from biodegradable materials; no plastics, metals or chemicals. The graves are shallower at 1 metre from the tip of the nose to the surface which allows for anerobic soil activity for more rapid decomposition. Headstones are not used as that detracts from creating a natural bush environment. Identification of bodies is required by law and that is done using micro-chips at the head and foot of the body that record the GPS location along with other details about the person. At the entrance to Wirra Wonga are 3 large stone tablets where the names of people buried in the natural burial area can be engraved at an additional cost. I noted that these are nearly full now showing the popularity of natural burial continues to grow.

Headstones compact a person’s life into just the dash between their birth date and death date. Technology with microchips allows for as much information about the person’s life to be recorded as the software allows. Imagine linking in with a person’s social media accounts.

Whilst I would like to think that the motivating factor for natural burial was because it has a low carbon footprint, that is not always the case. Natural burial is the cheapest and best value for money burial option at ACA with a 99-year period included in the price of $6,600. So people who want to be buried but are driven by budget will also consider this option. Click here for a price guide of Adelaide Cemeteries Authority.

The Eco Coffin Project group members at the entrance to Wirra Wonga Natural Burial ground

On the way home we stopped in at Pilyu Yarta at Smithfield Memorial Park. Pilyu Yarta is the other public natural burial ground in South Australia that is in the Gawler region, a fact not known by many people in our area and is one of the reasons for running the Eco Coffin project – to raise awareness of natural burial and the fact we have a natural burial ground in our area. Pilyu Yarta is a Kuarna term for ‘peaceful ground’. Australian natives and wildflowers make this an inviting place for all beings, human and more-than-human, to wander through.

Instead of headstones, names can be placed on these stone tablets at the entrance to Wirra Wonga Natural Burial ground
Wirra Wonga Natural Burial ground showcases and expands the indigenous plantings from the adjacent Folland Reserve. Hard to believe this is a burial ground in this environment teaming with life.
The Eco Coffin Project group having a tour of Wirra Wonga Natural Burial ground. Note the earth graves in the foreground that will have plantings on them soon once the earth ahs settled.
Wandering through Pilyu Yarta Natural Burial ground in the Gawler region.

It was a wonderful day out seeing and learning new things, challenging each one of us to rethink our options for what is possible with our bodies when we die. Eloise, one of the participants, is very creative and she gave me this beautiful gift of 2 origami dinosaurs that she whipped up during the car trip on her way to the site visit. In week 1 each person took home a pack of “Dying To Talk” cards to help them become clear on their values around death and dying. The logo for the cards is two dinosaurs pondering the cause of their extinction – let’s hope that is not a metaphor for us. Maybe bodies wrapped only in biodegradable shrouds that are either cremated in hydrogen powered cremators with zero emissions or buried naturally in bush settings teaming with life are what we need to be focussing on. What do you think?

A beautiful gift of 2 origami dinosaurs pondering the cause of their extinction – let’s hope this is not a metaphor for us.

The Eco Coffin Project is only possible thanks to the generous support of our sponsors and partners:

Eco Coffin Project thanks its sponsors
Thank you to our sponsors!