Accessibility links

Breaking News

Sydney, Australia Opens New 'Green' Cemetery

Natural Burial Park at Kemp's Creek Cemetery near Sydney, Australia

The Catholic Church is opening its first eco-friendly cemetery in Australia's largest city, Sydney. It is a way of reducing carbon footprints - even after death.

Australia's newest natural burial site sits in a quiet corner at Kemps Creek, on the edge of Sydney.

There are no gravestones or grand mausoleums - just a patch of bare grass surrounded by a simple wooden fence. Those laid to rest here will be buried in bio-degradable coffins.

Julian Porteous, the auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop of Sydney, thinks it will become a popular option.

Peter Ward (Chairman Catholic Cemeteries), MInister for Lands Tony Kelly, Bishop Julian Porteous, Michael McMahon (CEO Catholic Cemeteries) at the opening of the St. Francis Natural Burial Field at Kemps Creek, Sydney, Australia
Peter Ward (Chairman Catholic Cemeteries), MInister for Lands Tony Kelly, Bishop Julian Porteous, Michael McMahon (CEO Catholic Cemeteries) at the opening of the St. Francis Natural Burial Field at Kemps Creek, Sydney, Australia

"I think people will have a greater sense of their unity with creation," he said. "From dust we have come, to dust we shall return. In no way would this diminish all those very important human dimensions to the experience of death. There would still be in the Catholic tradition a full funeral Mass. There would still be the chance for the family to come together to pray. So, all the normal rituals surrounding the funeral of a person would still be preserved. But [at] the final resting place where there would be not, if you like, a heavy mark of the person, but rather the person is consigned to dust from where they came."

Graves at the Kemps Creek eco site can be leased for about $2,200 and are recycled. Tenure is limited to 30 years and, if the license is not renewed, then that plot is used again by someone else.

When relatives and friends come to pay their respects to someone who has passed away, they find them the grave in a unique way.

"We also put on each grave a transponder," says Michael McMahon, chief executive of the Catholic Cemeteries Board. "It is a transponder that is put about two feet below the surface. That will allow us to scan that area and find the name of the person that is actually located in that grave. We are also bringing in longitude and latitude, which will be a GPS coordinate. So, a person who has a new invented mobile phone can find the location of the grave."

The idea of a no-frills, environmentally-aware grave may, however, take time to catch on in Australia, where there is still a deep respect for tradition.

At the Rookwood Necropolis in Sydney - one of the largest cemeteries in the southern hemisphere - more than one million people are buried in the traditional fashion. The vast site is adorned with lavish headstones and statutes, as well as more modest memorials.

There are separate sections for Anglicans, Catholics, Jews and Muslims.

Alia, a Muslim migrant from Pakistan, reads a story of forgiveness over her mother's tomb. She, like visitors to the Rookwood cemetery from other faiths, believes that having a clearly marked, traditional grave is of vital importance.

"It is just like I am meeting her. It is a meeting place for me," she said. "Actually, her soul has gone up in the sky that is what we believe and whenever I come here I think of the time she passed away and we were seeing her face. Her face comes to me straight [away] when I come here."

Margaret, who is visiting her father's grave, reacts to the idea of finding a gravesite via GPS tracker.

"No. No thanks. I wouldn't like that. It is not personal," she said. "We can actually see where he is here. I don't like the GPS. That's too modern for me. I'm very traditional. I like the old way but just to think with the GPS and you're going around and you look like you are looking for mines or something. No. Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid."

There is also a view that conventional graveyards help to preserve history and display the spirit of a community.

Peter Dowling, a heritage officer at the National Trust in Canberra, says eco-burial sites will not have the same 'cultural value' as one of the many traditional cemeteries he visits.

"I quite often get an intense feeling of life and death, of the sort of achievements and failures of the people," he says. "And, I quite often feel I am walking through history, which is exactly what I am doing in actual fact and that is what anyone else is doing. They are walking through the history of that particular community where that cemetery is. And, it would be a shame to lose that sort of sense of the past, that sort of connectivity with the past. You know, these cemeteries are really, really symbols of our past. They are markers of our history."

The Roman Catholic Church believes that its new green option will become increasingly popular, as its parishioners weigh up the benefits of the ultimate act of recycling.

The Kemps Creek site is officially open for business. The ground has been dedicated under Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology.