Natural way to mark respect

Eleanor Dowden, with son Peter, waters a totara tree planted at her husband Richard's natural burial site at Green Park Cemetery in Westwood. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE
Eleanor Dowden, with son Peter, waters a totara tree planted at her husband Richard's natural burial site at Green Park Cemetery in Westwood. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE

The natural burial site at Green Park Cemetery in Westwood will have been open for four years next month.

The Star reporter Shawn McAvinue talks to a Dunedin family remembering a loved one with a tree rather than a tombstone.

Since the natural burial site at  the cemetery opened in November 2013, 14 people have been laid to rest on the hillside.

A native tree or shrub marks each burial site in the natural burial area at Green Park Cemetery.

Dunedin City Council parks and recreation operations manager Jendi Paterson said the natural burial trial space at the Westwood cemetery had reached nearly half of its capacity.

Consequently, the council had earmarked nearly 3ha surrounding the site to future-proof the service, which had caused no issues for the council since its opening, she said.

Richard Dowden. Photo: supplied
Richard Dowden. Photo: supplied

Eleanor Dowden (80) buried her husband, Prof Richard Dowden, at the site last year.

Prof Dowden died on December 15 last year, aged 84, after a battle with a terminal illness.

A simple wooden marker with his name and dates of birth and death stands at the head of the grave.

In the centre of the grave is a totara sapling.

As the totara matures, the untreated marker will rot.

Prof Dowden visited the site with one of his eight children when the site opened and told them of his funerary wishes.

"He was always an outdoor person,'' Mrs Dowden said.

To keep busy in the days before his father's death, their son Peter Dowden (51) built his father's casket himself

out of natural material.

"I felt helpless and it was really helpful to have something to do,'' he said.

After Prof Dowden died, he was placed in the coffin dressed in clothing made from natural fibres such as cotton and wool.

The family took the coffin to the cemetery, and grandchildren helped backfill the grave and plant the sapling.

A bouquet made from cabbage tree and Australian gum tree leaves was put on the grave.

The bouquet was a nod to Prof Dowden and his wife's Australian roots and their new life in Dunedin.

They moved to Dunedin after Prof Dowden was appointed as a professor in the University of Otago physics department, his research focused on the southern section of the earth's magnetic field.

Her husband might have chosen another funerary option had it been available, Mrs Dowden said.

"I think he quite would have liked to have been put in a rocket and fired in the sky,'' she said.

The natural burial site was a "stunning'' second option, though, with its view down the coast to Blackhead.

"On the day of the funeral, the sun was shining and the sea was limpid - a pale green on a still day - and Blackhead was so dramatic. It was glorious,'' Mrs Dowden said.

shawn.mcavinue@thestar.co.nz

PROPOSED EXPANSION 

Proposed expansion of natural burial site at Green Park Cemetery in Westwood.
Proposed expansion of natural burial site at Green Park Cemetery in Westwood.

Natural burial site

Green Park Cemetery, Westwood

• Only dedicated site for natural burials in Dunedin.

• Bodies are not embalmed and caskets are made from untreated fibre and wood.

• Caskets buried within the active soil layer, allowing for a more natural decomposition.

• Nothing is introduced to the environment that is not biodegradable.

• Permanent headstones not allowed.

• Gravesites identified by GPS co-ordinates.

• Families are given a wooden marker and the choice of one of 18 native trees or shrubs to plant at the burial site.

 

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