Pretty Girls Make Good Fertilizer

Words by
Lucy Kaldor
Images by
Georgina Reid
| November 1, 2013

There is nothing particularly exciting about The End. Because bugger all happens after it, at least not for my atheist self. Close the book. Turn off the light. That’s it.

But what if I knew that my end would almost certainly be something else’s beginning? Would that help, I wonder? Organ donation is one way of sustaining life through the act of one’s own death (I’m on the register). Another, as I’ve recently discovered, is ‘green burial’.

Pretty girls make good fertiliser, said British singer Morrissey, nearly.

Plants and trees thrive on decomposed animal matter (blood and bone, anyone?), much in the manner that animals thrive on plants (pass me the salad).It’s all part of the beautiful/tragic cycle of life, and the Tarzan-grip handshake between the kingdoms Animalia and Plantae.

Alongside a recent flourish of interest in urban food production, organic gardening and toxin-free alternatives to the many toxic cesspits of modern life, there is a growing global movement towards green burial, which is burial in an environmentally sustainable – indeed, an environmentally generous – manner.

According to that modern font of knowledge, Wikipedia, the interment methods prevalent in the contemporary American funeral industry result in the burial not only of the dead, but also of “70,000 m3 of hardwood caskets (most covered in chemical-laden varnishes), 90,272 tons of steel caskets, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze caskets, 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete vaults, and 827,060 US gallons (3,130 m3) of embalming fluid, which usually includes formaldehyde.”

Cremation, which is a popular choice in many countries including Australia, is less obviously wasteful but is an acknowledged contributor to air pollution. Meanwhile, the nutrient value of the millions of bodies that are disposed of in this manner is completely lost; corpses will either decompose into a ‘toxic sludge’ inside an anaerobic vault, or they will deposit their personal load of toxins into the soil or air.

Green burial offers an appealing (as appealing as burial can be) alternative. There are now many organisations worldwide that promote and/or provide green burial services. Each offering is slightly different, but common to all is a method of interment designed to enable fast, natural aerobic decomposition of the body. Corpses are buried in cotton shrouds (as with Jewish and Islamic burials) or biodegradable coffins made from untreated light timber or cardboard. Graves, which are necessarily shallow, are generally marked by the planting of a tree; the planting is usually a focal part of the funeral ceremony and a commemorative plaque can be located on or near to the tree. The tree’s roots draw up rich nutrients as they are released into the soil, and it flourishes. It’s how burial must have been for most, up until relatively recently in human history.

Green burial proponents argue that this treatment of the body offers a more dignified end for the dead while being significantly healthier for the living. If green burial became commonplace, necropoli would no longer be ‘cities of the dead’, but lush ecosystems providing ‘green lungs’ for surrounding urban development, not to mention excellent picnic space. If that isn’t enough, there are some quality pun-names emerging, such as ‘cemetrees’ and ‘groveyards’ (both thanks to www.cemetrees.org), which are sure to catch on. Since I was a child I’ve mentally x-rayed the few cemeteries I’ve visited, and each time been quietly horrified by my findings. I’d much sooner visit a groveyard.

Pretty girls make graves, said Morrissey, but they’d make better groves.

It’s a heartening thought: when Paris Hilton has lived out a long and illustrious life of paparazzi encounters and red-carpet-burns, has died and been buried in her pearls and a biodegradable shroud, she will produce fine compost.

So when I die, send me to Teven (NSW), where I hear there is an excellent memorial bush reserve.

[1] The song, of course, is Pretty Girls Make Graves, from The Smiths’ eponymous debut album (1984). Morrissey didn’t say that pretty girls make good fertiliser, but it’s exactly the sort of misanthropic thing he would say.

[2] Wikipedia contributors, ‘Natural burial’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 October 2013, 08:23 UTC, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Natural_burial&oldid=577400186> [accessed 26 October 2013]

[3] Environmental Protection Agency (SA), ‘Environmental Issues associated with cremation’, <http://www.epa.sa.gov.au/xstd_files/Air/Other/cremation.pdf>, viewed 25 October 2013.


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