Back to earth, naturally

By Lauren Hassani  |  Photos by Marco Javier

A movement in New Zealand aims for a more compassionate, environmentally kind, and holistic approach to dealing with death.


Sarah Dewes, 65, unfurls the large roll of handmade paper standing in the corner of her living room in Rotorua, New Zealand, gently smoothing out the stack of area-rug-sized sheets with deckled edges. The papers are tissue thin — so thin that when she lifts up an individual sheet, light shines through and illuminates the flecks and strands of the harakeke (flax) fibers from which the paper is made. It looks like a veil, or some ethereal fabric crafted by Mother Nature. “This is my shroud,” she explains. “I’ll be buried in this.”

Pania Roa, 49, outlines the game plan. “When the time comes, I’ll probably cut a small veil that’ll go over her face at nighttime. Then the bigger shroud — one will go on top and the other will go beneath her body.”

Lyn Walmsley, 59, concurs. “We’ve got each other’s backs covered.” An apt statement, in both a literal and metaphorical sense, and in death as well as life. The three are friends and collaborators in promoting the small but growing movement towards natural burial practices in New Zealand. They represent complementary sides of the same interest in returning to a more compassionate, environmentally kind, and holistic approach to dealing with death.

Their efforts are joined through the nonprofit organization, Te Atawhai Aroha Compassionate Communities Rotorua Trust — Dewes as a Coordinator, Roa as Tikanga and Reo Māori (Māori customs and language) Advisor, and Walmsley as a trustee, co-chairing the Charitable Trust. The group of volunteers is based in Rotorua, a city of 77,000 people located about 140 miles southeast of Auckland on the North Island. Its Māori and non-Māori members work together to enable family-led, affordable, eco-friendly funerals, which they facilitate through a combination of educational services, advocacy work, and collaboration with community groups, health agencies, and government agencies. Te Atawhai Aroha’s vision is to eventually train funeral guides, or death doulas, who can guide and support families during the grieving process.

“It’s really about giving people options,” Walmsley says. For those of Māori descent, like Walmsley and Roa, natural burials offer a return to tikanga, or customs, around death that had been lost over decades of colonization. They also encapsulate the Māori ideals of respect for and stewardship of the land.

“When the time comes, I’ll probably cut a small veil that’ll go over her face at nighttime. Then the bigger shroud — one will go on top and the other will go beneath her body.”

Te Atawhai Aroha Compassionate Communities Rotorua Trust holds workshops to teach the art of harakeke (flax) paper making.

Pania Roa demonstrates the transparent qualities of the paper shroud.

For Dewes, who is of Irish descent and comes from a background in public health policy, the environmental benefits are particularly appealing. Equally important is addressing inequities that result in funeral poverty.

Natural burial is the interment of a body directly into the earth without the use of embalming fluids or coffins; the remains can decompose fully and much more quickly, without leaching embalming preservatives like formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde into the soil. The body is usually wrapped in a biodegradable container of some sort, as opposed to modern coffins, which are often made of engineered woods and other finishes, some toxic, that do not break down. Graves are typically shallower, only a meter deep, as opposed to the traditional burial six-feet under, which also aids in rapid decomposition.

The benefits are dramatic from a cost perspective as well. Natural burials are typically thousands of dollars cheaper than that of a traditional funeral, which, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau New Zealand, can cost an average of NZ $8,000–10,000 (US $4900–6100).

There are currently 19 certified natural burial sites located throughout New Zealand and Te Atawhai Aroha is petitioning for one to be added to public land in Rotorua, open to citizens of the city and managed by the local council.

Others, like Walmsley, are looking to their own land to create family burial grounds. Her family, the Northcroft-Waaka-Moke clan of the Tūhourangi-Ngāti Wāhiao iwi and hapū (tribe and sub-tribe) has set aside five hectares (roughly 12 acres) of their 54-hectare (133-acre) farm in Horohoro, on the outskirts of the city, as a final resting place for future generations. The land was owned by her great grandmother and all descendants are eligible to be buried there. Their certification differed from that of public burial sites in that the petition went through the Māori Land Court, a more expedient process.

““Our motto is kia whakamana ai te whenua, whakamana ai te whanau. If we look after and enhance our land, then the family will be enhanced. So, it just seemed hypocritical, if we were going to plant ourselves, that we would put poison back into our whenua.””

Lyn Walmsley stands on her family burial ground, located near Hāparangi Mountain.

As early as 2005, her family began discussing a project to regenerate a section of land that was looking sparse. One person brought up the idea of putting in a cemetery. “It just kind of melded together and evolved naturally,” says Walmsley. “We want to plant trees. We want a cemetery. Then we may as well plant ourselves.”

After a 15-year journey, their urupā, or burial ground, is finally ready. What once was an empty plot with a lone pine tree is now a picturesque meadow filled with native trees and shrubs. As Walmsley points out, the Māori refer to themselves as tangata whenua, or people of the land, so it is only fitting that they go back into the land to nourish it. All things are connected through mauri — a life force or energy that is continually transferred from the people to the land, and vice versa.

Historically, Māori wrapped their dead in whāriki(mats) and placed the bodies in shallow graves, caves, or sometimes tree hollows. However, by the early twentieth century, most had adopted the practices of the European settlers — employing the services of undertakers to prepare the bodies, with burial done in coffins six-feet under or in mausoleums. Walmsley’s urupā is a step toward reclamation of traditional Māori practices.

She, along with other Māori, are hoping to bring more of these customs to the forefront and are resurrecting lost rituals around burials, from prayers and incantations, to methods of preparing the body. Weavers like Pania Roa are helping to bring back the art of making kopaki, or hand-woven burial mats.

Made from the same harakeke as Dewes’ delicate paper shrouds, Roa’s kopaki are intricately woven mats that are wrapped around the body before being placed in the earth. Roa began weaving as a teenager but has shifted to making kopaki in recent years. One of her mentors, Maata Wharehoka, revitalized the practice in the early 2000s, and in turn Roa now teaches workshops to others so that they can become self-sufficient in making their own kopaki.

Pania Roa started exploring the idea of kopaki weaving after her father mentioned seeing one at a friend’s funeral. Already an experienced weaver, she was quickly able to learn the process.

Wrapping bodies in kopaki (woven mats) is part of Kahu Whakatere, the ancient Māori practices around death and burial. This empty kopaki, created by Pania Roa, was created to demonstrate the weaving process.

She explains that in te reo MĀori, the MĀori language, the word for placenta and land is the same: whenua. And a strand of flax, whenu, is also derived from that same word. “The whenu  holds it all together. It’s beautiful. We have a holistic way of thinking.”

She explains that in te reo Māori, the Māori language, the word for placenta and land is the same: whenua. And a flax strand, whenu, is also derived from that same word. “The whenu holds it all together. It’s beautiful. We have a holistic way of thinking.”

The three friends — Walmsley, Roa, and Dewes — meet regulaly around Dewes’ kitchen table to plan and discuss the work of Te Atawhai Aroha. The experience of learning about natural burials has prompted them all, Māori and non-Māori, to have more upfront conversations around death and dying — and to find comfort in being able to talk about it. They each know how the other wants to be buried. “

We’re in this with the premise that we know we all die and we’re all in the same boat — we call it a waka. We’re in the same boat together in this life,” says Dewes.

According to Walmsley, she now discusses death openly with her grandchildren, letting them know that even after she is gone, she will leave behind a tohu, or reminder, of herself. But she is not adamant about having an exact memorial or grave marker for her descendants to visit. Leaving behind the land and having them know that she is somewhere buried beneath the trees is enough.

She surveys the peaceful field where she will one day be placed. “If I do one good thing in my life, I’m going to grow a tree. That makes me pretty proud and happy, just knowing that I’m part of that circle of life.” ●