Bold new plan amid fears Sydney could run out of space for the dead

Traditional burials could soon be a thing of the past with the emergence of an environmentally friendly, "modern" and more affordable approach to laying loved ones to rest.

A company that manages two major cemeteries in Sydney has begun campaigning for people to consider purchasing sustainable burial plots with limited tenures.

There's one minor catch however — remains will be pulled from the ground after a pre-selected tenure of either 25, 50 or 99 years.

While sustainable burials are well-utilised in other Australian states, NSW "hasn’t kept up with the times", according to Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries NSW chief executive Isabelle Meyer.

Shovels and dirt at a gravesite.
Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries NSW is hoping to establish sustainable burials in Sydney. Source: Getty

Sustainable burials usually involve bodies being buried in a biodegradable coffin or shroud, which is removed from the ground once the person's allotted tenure transpires and given back to loved ones.

Traditional caskets can be problematic due to the release of toxic lacquers into the soil, while chemicals used in the embalming process can disrupt the natural environment, Dr Meyer said.

"While the law allows it in NSW, it's not very common, and what we're saying is that a potential solution to the lack of burial space, particularly in inner Sydney, might be to look at options for limited tenure and reusing gravesites," she told Yahoo News Australia.

"If the community aren't accepting of it, then we're not going to proceed, but if people express interest, we would probably set up dedicated areas at both of our cemeteries."

Remains almost entirely disintegrate

SMCNSW is the crown land manager and custodian of the Woronora Memorial Park and Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park.

Coffins, along with the bodies, would almost be entirely disintegrated by the time the end of each tenure was reached, Dr Meyer said.

There is concern Sydney will run out of space if it doesn't adopt a sustainable approach to burials. Pictured is Woronora Memorial Park, one of the cemeteries operated by Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries NSW. Source: Google Maps

"All of the medical research suggests that bodies and coffins are pretty much entirely decomposed within 25 years. It can depend on how acidic or dry the soil is, but normally within 25 years, there is pretty much nothing left," she said.

Any bones left after a tenure period would be placed in an ossuary box that could then be returned to loved ones to be stored or cremated.

Such is the norm in Greece, where the most common burial lot tenure was five years.

Without a more sustainable approach to burials, there is a risk that established cemeteries across Sydney will run out of room, SMCNSW Chair Joanne Muller told Yahoo News Australia.

She said sustainable burials should not be confused with natural burials, which commonly utilise shrouds and biodegradable coffins as well, but don't involve the exhumation of bodies.

"They're very land hungry because you can't disinter or reuse a spot," Ms Muller told Yahoo News Australia.

Sustainable burials don't come without challenges of their own though, with government regulations stipulating that special conditions be met before they take place.

There is a layer of sandstone in Sydney that doesn't allow digging beneath a certain depth, which can present as a prominent constraint given burial plots that are reused need to be deeper than regular plots.

The number of people buried and the volume of soil above the body must also meet specific public health act regulations.

While sustainable burials have been touted an attractive option due to their environmental benefits, they are also far more affordable than typical burials.

"Having a limited tenure on the gravesite does significantly reduce the cost for people," Ms Muller said.

In South Australia, where sustainable burials are well established, costs are about half of what people would expect to pay at any cemetery in the Sydney area, she said.

"The cost would also depend on the time period you selected. So a 25-year tenure is going to be a lot cheaper than a 50-year tenure, and a lot cheaper again than a 99-year tenure."

"Sydney's a bit behind in accepting this. There certainly are other places in Australia and the rest of the world where it's commonplace."

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