7 May 2024

Doing death differently: Taking burials back to nature and time immemorial

| Marion Williams
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three women standing under a tree

Walawaani Way founder Fiona McCuaig (centre) with funeral celebrant Shanna Provost (left) and Lauren Newman of Tree of Life Funerals. Photo: Gillianne Tedder.

Australia’s first 100 per cent natural conservation burial site will open in Bodalla next month.

Eight years ago, Fiona McCuaig had no idea how many people wanted to be buried back into nature. It turns out that a conservationist burial in a forest ecosystem that will be protected into perpetuity resonates with many.

The McCuaig family moved to Bodalla on the Far South Coast in 1989. After the Big Cheese closed down, Sandra McCuaig set up the Dairy Shed in 2008. Fiona came down from Sydney to help her mother with the cafe for a year. She never left.

The Dairy Shed, renowned for its ice cream, milk and cheese, belongs to her mother and sister.

“I wanted to do something for myself that was good for people and the planet because I had been a conservationist with Sea Shepherd,” Fiona says.

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She had seen a documentary, A Will for the Woods, about an American dying of cancer who was looking into what Americans call green burials.

“I thought it would be great to do natural burials on the family farm because the two end-of-life options in Australia – coffins and cremations – are not great for the planet,” she says.

”People don’t want to leave a death print. They want to do something positive for the planet as their parting gift.”

One of the farm’s permissible uses is as a cemetery, so in 2016 she approached Eurobodalla Shire Council.

Natural burials date back to time immemorial, while coffins and cremations are relative newcomers. Fiona wants to change today’s mindset in Western societies of death being behind closed doors. She says other cultures treat the body as a vessel that has harboured a beautiful life and return it to the ground.

Her business, Walawaani Way, gives families more involvement.

“We want to give back control to the families, to how it was before the 1950s when people, predominantly women, looked after the body at home before it was buried,” she says.

There is a revival of end-of-life doulas, holistic carers for people in their last days through to their burial.

Family involvement can extend to building coffins from recycled timbers or cardboard, or wrapping the body in a shroud made from sheets or clothes.

“Everything is natural and good for the soil to help regenerate the land,” Fiona says.

People can carry the body to the grave, place soil on the body, plant a tree and tend to the tree if they want.

“People need to feel they can do something and be part of something that is not morbid but a celebration of life,” Fiona says.

bushland on a farm

The entry to Walawaani Way conservation burials. Photo: Guy Bailey.

Instead of being a place of death, her burial ground will be a beautiful place to visit and one that is full of life. Students from a local high school will plant banksias to create habitat for the iconic black cockatoo.

Walawaani Way is also an educational platform for regenerating cleared farmland. Fiona’s husband, Ben Stainer, is Yuin and his community will help him regenerate the grounds.

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The graves’ only markers on the land will be the trees, although people may have a natural plaque of engraved wood or stone that will eventually be overgrown.

A non-degradable memorial wall will have plaques with each person’s name, date of birth and passing, and a QR code with the grave’s GPS location and an obituary. That may be a simple sentence from the person or a short film about their life so they can be remembered.

As much as possible will be sourced locally – endemic plants and trees, native flowers for the burial service, colourful hemp and cotton shrouds and biodegradable mycelium coffins from Moruya.

Such is the interest in Walawaani Way that Fiona is doing weekly tours. The formal launch will be on Friday, 21 June, the winter solstice.

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