May 24

Eco-friendly coffins on the rise as Australians look to reduce their environmental footprint

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Jan Abel and her partner Murray were among a dozen people who signed up to an eco coffin-making workshop with the hope of reducing their environmental footprint — in both life and death.

At the first session, the couple — from Gawler, South Australia — began creating shrouds using natural fibres and designing flat-pack coffins.

Murray’s sketch featured a vibrant symmetrical motif incorporating his life’s many passions.

“I’m not ready to go yet so, say in ten or 15 years’ time, what’s your role?” he asked doula Helen Roberts, who he wanted to help with his end-of-life planning.

“I hope in 20 years’ time I’ll still be there [to help],” she replied.

“I don’t want to die tomorrow, but I might.”

Just days after their conversation, Murray had a heart attack and died.

“He was a lovely person. We had so much fun,” Ms Abel said.

A man playing the guitar and a woman playing the clarinet together
Jan Abel remembered her partner, Murray, as “a lovely person”.(Supplied: Jan Abel)

“The day before he died, we were so lucky to be put into [coronavirus isolation] with all the things that we could share together, with art and music and all those sorts of things.

“But sadly, by the next morning, he was gone.”

Murray’s family and friends worked together to plan his farewell and decorate a flat-pack coffin.

Ms Abel said she wouldn’t have known what he wanted unless they had discussed it at the workshop.

“I was able to transfer what he wanted onto the coffin and complete it as he wanted to the best of my ability,” she said.

Jan Abel smiling at the camera
Jan Abel and her partner Murray want to reduce their environmental footprint in life and death.(ABC News: Ben Nielsen)

Workshops booking out as people learn about dying sustainably

Organiser Abby Buckley said Murray’s death made the eco coffin project more poignant.

“We all got to use our skills and think about how to apply our skills sooner than we were planning,” she said.

“We had this lovely moment where we could come together in COVID-19 restrictions and work with Jan.”

Abby Buckley crocheting at a table
Project organiser Abby Buckley said Murray’s death made the eco coffin project more poignant.(ABC News: Ben Nielsen)

The program was quickly booked out when it launched in October and has since moved online due to social gathering restrictions.

“It’s actually worked to our advantage — having the pandemic and people being able to be in their own cocoon and own space to really think about what death is for them and how they want to their body to be treated when they die.”

Participants have shared their creations — made by crocheting, sewing, felting and painting — and received online talks from experts about dying sustainably.

“In Australia, the majority of people are really trying hard to change their ways to live a sustainable life,” Ms Buckley said.

“We’re learning a dialogue, we’re becoming more informed so that when we are working with the professionals in this industry, it’s easier for them because they can have a more empowered conversation.”

Growing numbers of people seeking ‘natural burials’

Since 2008, more than 170 people have chosen a natural burial at Wirra Wonga in Adelaide’s northern suburbs.

The area hugs the perimeter of the Enfield Memorial Park and mirrors the native vegetation of adjacent Folland Park Reserve.

It was the first dedicated site in Australia where bodies could be naturally buried in biodegradable coffins or wrappings.

Coffin design
The eco coffin-making workshops booked out when they were launched in October 2019.(ABC News: Ben Nielsen)

Graves are marked with trees instead of headstones.

“I think for people who are passionate about sustainability, have a lot of values about conservation, this is an appealing process and appealing way to say farewell to the planet,” Adelaide Cemeteries Authority chief executive Robert Pitt said.

He said natural burials provided consumer choice but also made good business sense.

“It’s very low-maintenance. It very quickly and very sustainably provides some greenness and better aesthetics to a cemetery,” Mr Pitt said.

Mr Pitt said his sustainability plans extended across all aspects of the business, including the installation of new cremators to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and seeking higher environmental management accreditation.

“I’d also love to get rid of any bits of plastic and wire in floral tributes … they’re absolutely glorious but we do have some troubles recycling those,” he said.

“We just think it’s the right thing to do and it’s also sustainable … there are a lot of reasons why we would do it, in fact, there are very few reasons why we wouldn’t.”



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