Thursday, January 21, 2016

When I die, bury me

One of six stories behind the 'In the Garden' interviews from the 2015-16 Summer Series of Talking Plants on ABC Radio National (copied from ABC RN homepage).

When I die, bury me

Friday 18 December 2015 10:39AM
Tim Entwisle
Trees can be a source of solace and stability in a sometimes hostile world. That's especially true in cemeteries, where our bodies can nourish the natural world after we die, providing an enduring sense of connection, writes Tim Entwisle, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.
I often wonder why there aren't more trees in our cemeteries. I also wonder why our cemeteries aren't more attractive places to visit.
Recently I went to a cemetery in Newtown, in the heart of Sydney's inner west. I was meeting landscape designer Georgina Reid to find out why she chooses to spend every lunchtime there.
Yeah, I'd like to be food.
While I was waiting for her, and within minutes of arriving at the Camperdown Memorial Rest Park, I was swooped by magpies. Two young goths dressed entirely in black were taking in the funereal air. Later, a mother gently dropped her daughter over a fence onto a gravestone. Locals walked their dogs, and a crew of volunteer gardeners bobbed around with their heads down and bums in the air. I didn't expect so much life in a cemetery.
Then again, this is an unusual burial ground. It was started in 1858 and closed 18 years later, overflowing with bodies and not the most pleasant of places to visit. The upside of this was plenty of nutrients for the newly planted trees. Those trees are still with us, and they are magnificent.
Reid edits the online magazine The Planthunter and she spoke to me of her daily walks through the cemetery, and her sense that the trees and the body-ridden earth are inexorably linked. 'I find it really peaceful and somewhere that I can breathe, and that's as much to do with the trees as the beautiful old gravestones', she said.  You can read more in her article,Cemeteries: Death and the Landscape.
This cemetery has stately oaks, Canary Island date palms and one giant Moreton Bay fig. It also has patches of remnant kangaroo grass, among which the weeders I saw presumably do all they can to encourage various local wildflowers.
Horticulture is now part of many progressive cemeteries. Not all, mind you. Reid mentioned some new cemeteries call themselves 'memorial parks', but in reality are nothing like a park. They are devoid of any vegetation other than turf and a rose or two (plastic or real). She prefers the genuine park-like feel of the Camperdown graveyard.
'It's a bit rough, it's not manicured in the slightest, that also appeals to me,' she said. It harks back to an earlier age when cemeteries were places of recreation as well as mourning. 'In the 19th century cemeteries were used as public parks, which I think is positive.'
In Melbourne, the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust looks after 17 cemeteries. They have publicly stated their intention to create places that people will choose visit more often—not only to visit the gravesites, but also to picnic, stroll or go to a cafe. For the trust, horticulture is as important as tombstones. Kew Cemetery (also known as Boroondara General Cemetery) near me in Melbourne is extremely proud of its trees, and you can do a walk to locate them all, plus the interesting graves.
There are plenty of more adventurous projects and project ideas out there about how to deal more efficiently with our bodies once we die, and how to make the connection between humans and the rest of the living world stronger.
There is the US Urban Death Project, where corpses would be placed in a 'giant tower' to decompose for about six weeks, after which they would be converted, more or less, to compost which would be either returned to families or 'spread in national parks'. I'm not sure that national parks need to spread compost, but we get the general idea.
News reports quoted research from the USA showing that it takes 90,000 tons of steel, nine million metres of hardwood and 1.6 million tons of concrete to bury the dead each year in that country alone. Meanwhile, cremation has come under fire for the amount of energy used to combust a body. 
One of the advertising slogans for the Urban Death Project, which is crowd-sourcing for funds, is 'eventually I'll be a lemon tree'. (The Australian male, in particular, notoriously contributes some of himself to a lemon tree every time he relieves himself in the backyard.) The project argues that it is more than simply a method for turning our no-longer-needed bodies into plant food, but a better way to understand our place in the natural world.
In Australia, Living Legacy, led by Warren Roberts, is a fledgling program to combine the ashes of the dead with living forests. This particular concept is likely to be more about a spiritual and intellectual connection with the living world than fertilising it, but it too is part of a change in our attitude towards the dead. 
So what about Reid's wishes for her final repose? On her daily visits to the cemetery in Newtown, I imagine she must have pondered what she wants to happen to her body when she dies. 'I'd like to be feeding one of these amazing trees: a lemon-scented gum or an angophora or even an oak,' she told me. 'Yeah, I'd like to be food.'
Trees in a cemetery, and trees that interfere (in the nicest way) with the plots, would seem to be a simple way to connect spent bodies with a world that continues beyond their life. We who are living can then enjoy those trees, and our cemeteries.

A gardening show with a twist. Talking Plants is a witty and at times provocative discussion show on all things botanical.

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