Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Human Burials Can Save Threatened Species

By Matthew Holden

As declines in biodiversity accelerate we need to examine innovative ways to save threatened species. Conservation burials may be one solution, and the potential is enormous.

All of us will die, so imagine how beautiful it would be if our friends could visit our grave, hear the song of a critically endangered bird and know that, in death, we saved this bird from becoming extinct? I’m talking about a conservation burial in which burial fees are used to fund the acquisition and management of land for conservation.

It works like this. Instead of spending vast amounts of money on fancy coffins and tombstones we instead put these resources towards the purchase and restoration of habitat. Within this habitat, the burial process employs natural principles – that is, your corporeal remains decompose in the ground alongside only biodegradable materials (bypassing the embalming process).

But conservation burials go a step further than natural burials. Natural burials are about avoiding environmental damage caused by conventional burial and cremation. Conservation burials not only eliminate this damage but improve the environment.

How much life might we save going down this deathly route? Quite a lot. We recently demonstrated that nearly $4 billion per year is spent on coffins and embalming – and that’s in the USA alone. This amount of money could be enough to save every threatened species on the planet (listed by the IUCN) from going extinct.

Examples of conservation burials exist in the USA, UK and Canada, where bodies are buried within the nature reserves they protect. If managed appropriately, human remains in a national park can add an additional sacred value to the land that people may be less inclined to violate.

Since the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and that people often need to visit burial sites, it is important to consider the biodiversity gains if conservation burials only funded the protection and restoration of habitat in urban areas. Conservation burials provide a mechanism to fund systematic spatial planning that could enable urban land to be progressively acquired and set aside for the benefit of valued bio­diversity. For example, if everyone living in Manhattan, New York, received conservation burials when deceased, 2% of the island would become new urban nature reserves within three generations.

However, guarding the environment in death isn’t the only way to conduct conservation burials. Perhaps we could achieve better conservation outcomes if burials not only funded the protection of ecosystems above human remains, but also in distant areas of high biodiversity. A small commemorative natural burial ground in or near a city could be used to create urban greenspace for the community, and then leftover money could fund other conservation projects. At the entrance of the city’s burial ground we could erect a commemorative monument listing all of the conservation projects each individual funded in their death.

The Earth Funerals project in Armidale, NSW, aims to take a similar approach. This new project will use burial fees and donated farmland to build and restore a wildlife corridor. This corridor will extend well beyond the area allocated to human remains.

The conservation burial industry is in its infancy, and at this time is mostly unregulated. Establishing appropriate governance and regulation around the burial business will be necessary to ensure that well intentioned participants will be prepared to invest.

A conservation burial is a no-brainer. Who doesn’t want to return to the bushland when their time comes? Who wouldn’t prefer that their corpse provides a lasting legacy to the protection of endangered wildlife rather than having formaldehyde shot through their dead body?

So if you want to contribute to nature in death, start now by planning your own conservation burial.

Matthew Holden is a member of the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED). He is based at the University of Queensland.