Pushing up daisies takes on a new meaning when discussing natural burials.
The ACT is moving towards allowing "green burials" where the body would be buried in a shroud.
Cardboard coffins are already allowed in the ACT for burial and cremation, and people of the Muslim faith can be buried in the ACT in a shroud, without the need for a coffin.
The practice of natural or green burial is allowed in the US and some Australian states but has been slow to come to the usually progressive ACT jurisdiction.
Death is a sensitive issue and natural burial is not everyone's preferred option. However, it will provide choice, an alternative to traditional burial in a wooden coffin with a fixed headstone.
The Bushland Cemetery at the Lismore Memorial Gardens was the first green burial site in NSW and opened in July 2008. The cemetery website confirms a coffin is not necessary for a burial.
"You may choose to be buried wrapped simply in a shroud of biodegradable cotton, this ensures your body is in close contact with the earth and that decomposition of the body is quick and natural," it says. "If you choose to use a coffin it must be made from natural organic materials such as plantation timber or woven wicker. Recycled cardboard is highly recommended."
Canberra Cemeteries chief executive Hamish Horne told estimates hearings in June that Gungahlin Cemetery had been chosen for natural burials, which he hoped would be available "this coming year".
Expectations of a change in policy in the ACT are heightening due to the likely appointment of former Greens Assembly member Caroline Le Couteur to the board of the ACT Public Cemeteries Authority. She is a natural-burial advocate who buried her parents in cardboard coffins.
Peter Dinn, director of Toscan Dinn Funerals at Weston, stocks cardboard coffins but says demand has not increased in recent years.
"About one in 10 families are taking a cardboard coffin, it's come down to price – they're no cheaper than traditional coffins and they can actually be more expensive than traditional coffins," he says.
"The cost hasn't come down over the years, if anything it's stayed quite high. We can provide a traditional timber coffin for less than we can provide a cardboard coffin. I would say price has been the main factor in the demand for cardboard coffins not increasing.
"There are some environmentally friendly options in timber which are only $100 or $200 more than cardboard, the traditional coffin manufacturers have developed natural coffins that have no metal components, they are put together with wood dowel."
Dinn says Muslim burials involve men handing the body down to others standing in the grave.
"For natural burials, the logistics are many and varied, if a container is not used," he says. "For Westerners, we doubt they are going to want to climb into graves, so when the time comes and there is an option for natural burials here in the ACT, there'll be logistics and practicalities, such as the minimum of a board underneath the person so a lowering device could be used."
So far discussions with other jurisdictions conducting natural burials have been limited, while funeral directors wait for the ACT to decide on regulations.
"Let's not reinvent the wheel – if it is working successfully in other jurisdictions, they must have worked through the work, health and safety issues, dignity issues, respect issues," Dinn says. "We're hoping that come the time of natural burials, a lot would be brought over from other jurisdictions."
Le Couteur says natural burial aligns with her philosophy of life, of trying to put the least burden on the planet.
"Natural burials are a way of making sure that your physical remains are treated in a way that is actually positive for the environment," she says. "Essentially, we all become part of the natural environment, humans are a part of the natural environment, natural burial is a way of making sure that happens more easily.
"It's giving back to the world as a whole and I think it will be particularly nice where it's proposed in the southern cemetery [near the Mugga Lane tip] because that is located next to a ridge that has a wildlife corridor. The idea is that it will be re-used, in so far as trees, kangaroos and wallabies will use it, instead of a typical lawn lawn cemetery.
"If you go to Mitchell Lawn Cemetery where my parents are, it's looking very nice right now but if you went out a few years ago, during the drought – I remember going to a couple of funerals there at the time, it was grim."
She says the cemetery trust has done a lot of work to improve the water supply. "This will keep the lawns looking beautiful for a lot longer than during the last drought," she says.
"All I'm saying is, instead of having a high maintenance lawn, I think many people, myself included, would be really happy to be part of enriching the native landscape and that's what natural burials do, give people a chance to enrich the natural landscape, rather than creating a different landscape.
"I'm not suggesting in any way that we should be getting rid of the existing cemeteries, that's totally not what anybody is saying. All we're saying is that people are interested in having a choice.
"If natural burial was an option, quite a few people would be positive about it because a lot of people these days are concerned about their impacts on the world and would be very happy to feel, when they die, their body was reasonably quickly part of the native environment."
Le Couteur became aware of cardboard coffins during her time in the Legislative Assembly. "If I hadn't had been in that position, I wouldn't have known they existed and it wouldn't have been offered to me," she says.
Minister for Territory and Municipal Services Shane Rattenbury has been negotiating with the ACT Public Cemeteries Trust to make natural burials an option in the territory.
"It's the role of the cemeteries authority to make sure we're providing a range of options that fit with individual cultural and religious practices and personal beliefs," he said recently.
In a paper written for the University of NSW on the planning challenges for green burials, authors Nancy Marshall and Rennie Rounds praise the Lismore Bushland Cemetery.
They say grave markers there are natural rock or an artificial rock (created from concrete) both with an option to attach plaques.
"In stark contrast to the order and symmetry of the lawn cemetery, the bushland cemetery retains an authentic natural bush character with its towering gums, native grasses and primary koala habitat, the distinct smell of eucalyptus and earth is prevalent," they say.
"Mown tracks serve as informal footpaths. There is the ultimate intention to create formal footpaths throughout the site, including an elevated walkway over the creek so as to minimise damage to the area."
Families are provided with a six-point co-ordinate of the plot, to find its location using a hand-held GPS device.
Council surveyors mark the four corners of the plot which are overlaid onto a map. A recycled plastic survey peg containing ceramic magnets is placed in the centre of every grave plot, allowing it to be found using a hand-held metal detector.
The authors say if the concept of green burials is to succeed in Australia, burial operators, land managers and planning authorities cannot simply transplant the practices employed in North America or Europe into the Australian context.
"Green burials have the potential to become a feasible and popular burial alternative in Australia," they say. "The concept of green burials provides a solution to assist in alleviating the land shortage for burial and provides a relatively new and innovative land use."