First natural burial held in Whakatāne six months after they were made legal

6:24 pm on 8 April 2021

The first natural burial has been held in the Whakatāne District, six months after they were made legal.

This section of bush alongside the Hillcrest Cemetery has been designated as the spot for the first natural burials to occur in Whakatane. Council staff have already begun landscaping the area.

This section of bush alongside the Hillcrest Cemetery was designated as the spot for the first natural burials to occur in Whakatāne. Photo: CHARLOTTE JONES / LDR

Whakatāne District Council general manager community experience Georgina Fletcher said council staff felt privileged to be able to facilitate the first burial at the Hillcrest Cemetery Natural Burial Grove.

"Those who have been involved in its establishment are grateful to have been a part of making this unique opportunity available for individuals and whānau," Fletcher said.

"This includes the staff who assisted through the planning stages, and the parks and cemetery staff who prepared the grove with great care."

The central principle of natural burials is to return the body to the earth for the benefit of the environment without the introduction of anything which would interfere with or pollute environmental processes.

"The grove is the result of a partnership between Whakatāne District Council and the not-for-profit organisation, New Zealand Natural Burials," Fletcher said.

"The grove will eventually become a living memorial to those buried there, a home for native flora and fauna, and a beautiful place for family and friends to visit."

Whakatāne councillors voted to allow natural burials in September last year after being asked to do so by the community.

When buried naturally, a body is placed in a shallow plot, in an environmentally friendly coffin made of soft, untreated wood or cardboard or a shroud. Compost is placed with the body and a native tree planted on top. Eventually the natural cemetery becomes native bush and a permanent living memorial to those buried there.

Natural burials are considered better for the environment as they aid rapid decomposition and an uptake in nutrient release, whereas traditional post-death disposition practices are resource-heavy and can damage the environment through chemicals from processes such as embalming.

Willetts Funeral Services facilitated the service for the whānau.

While the loss of a loved one is always painful, Whakatāne natural burial campaigner Jill Needham said it was great people could be buried in the way that they wanted.

"It is fantastic the first one has taken place, no one really wants to be number one, but now that one has happened, we may see more happening," she said.

"That may set the precedent and we may have more people choosing that as an option."

Whakatāne council has set aside 50 to 100 natural burial plots on the hillside at the Hillcrest Cemetery.

It is an ideal spot as it is tranquil with established flora and fauna.

It costs $3035 to be buried naturally in the Whakatāne District and people can choose between several species of native trees to be planted on their plot.

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