Sunday, September 12, 2010

Finding Green Graves: Interview with Stephen Laing, Director of ASSETtrac

natural burial green
Clayton Wood Natural Cemetery

One of the common regulations at the increasingly popular green cemeteries is some form of restriction limiting the type of markers and memorials used to identify where the remains lie.  Some cemeteries allow for plantings or natural stone cairns, others prohibit any type of identifying markers.  This kind of regulation is certainly understandable in a site created with the express intent of conserving the natural appearance and functions of a burial ground.
However, these regulations can run at cross purposes with a very natural emotional needs to commune with the deceased at the place of their rest, and the desire for other loved ones or family members to be buried together.
Even at traditional cemeteries there is often less certainty about exactly where a person is buried than families might feel comfortable with.     

green cemetery tracking
ASSETtrac is a UK firm that is offering some solutions to these problems.  The firm provides microchip transponders for cemetery use.  These devices are placed below ground to provide positive identification for interments and memorial plaques and plantings.  In addition to microchip devices, Assettrac also maintains a searchable and editable database,, of all major burial and cremation authorities, including all natural burial grounds in public or private management within the UK.  Stephen Laing, director of Assettrac, has graciously agreed to share a conversation about his firm and the future of cemeteries with The Daily Undertaker.

Stephen Laing

Patrick McNally: Mr. Laing, could you explain for us how your firm got into the business of providing microchip devices to cemeteries?

Stephen Laing: As a company specializing in asset identification, tracking, and software management we were approached by The Natural Burial Company who wanted to mark their plots with a device that was unseen, provided a unique grave ID, maintenance free, low cost, and indefinite life span.

PM: In the past, cemeteries have had to rely on the diligence and accuracy of the sexton’s records, which could vary widely.  If cemeteries move to your system, won’t they still be at the mercy of the person who enters the information on the chip and whether it is placed in the correct spot?  How can cemeteries and families ensure that the information is correct?

SL: The microchip we recommend is read only, so it only has a single unalterable ID number. The grave peg with its embedded chip has accompanying adhesive barcode labels for use on office wall maps, or sticking into burial registers and client correspondence if desired to minimize writing and mistakes. The chip number is printed on each label so it can be keyed into a computerized register or actually scanned in to the PC via a cable link. We do recommend a ‘standard’ position for implantation, one foot above the ‘head’ end and under 4 inches of undisturbed earth for maximum stability. Once in place each peg is scanned and checked again against the number recorded for that deceased. As with any ‘asset’ numbering system, a certain amount of care must be taken, but we hope to have minimized the chances of error. With computer based administration synchronized with a Smart phone or PDA it is now possible to take your burial register out on site electronically, and having scanned the relevant peg in the grave, display all the deceased details on screen via a wireless Bluetooth connection. This is very similar to the Memory Medallion service for vertical memorials now being offered in your country.        

green burial natural cemetery
Herongate Wood Natural Cemetery

PM: If a cemetery makes use of this tool, can it be offered to families for previous interments?  Are any of your clients applying this technology to all their interments?

SL: We have always supplied the system on a whole site basis, to reassure the operator for any grave that they’re in the right place for additional interments in a family plot or if required, to exhume someone. So they ‘chip’ every grave as a kind of insurance policy! Some do it for advance reservations too. We have never offered it to families direct.

PM: What assurance is there that this technology will A) continue to function 100+ years fro now, and B) Be accessible to the tech platforms of even 10 years from now?

SL: A) Placed underground where temperatures remain relatively stable, there is little to disturb the microchip being encapsulated in a hard non-biodegradable PVC rod. Also it requires no battery or maintenance, taking its power for a millisecond from the scanner when in range. This type of device has been in use for pet identification for over 30 years, and it’s reasonable to assume that the need to interrogate the chip even 50 years on is rather unlikely. B) We chose the animal ID technology because many families know it from their own experience, and also because many national governments have recognized the ISO standard on which it’s based. So we can reassure users both of continuity of supply and decoding technology as the hardware is being used all round the world. Bear in mind that this is an ID system not a locating system. We do encourage reliance on site knowledge, paper or computerized maps, laser positioning, GPS, even measurements from fixed points, which all help to get close to the right spot, and the scan is just for final confirmation. 

green burial tracking device
Glass-enclosed microchip
EPITRACE – The technology
 The technology is known as radio frequency identification or RFID. A practical system comprises three elements, the identification placed on or near the ‘asset’, a reader often hand held, and a register, spreadsheet, or specialist computer program.

Microchip transponder-The peg contains a passive read only microchip transponder, just a larger version of the type injected into domestic pets for proof of ownership. The operating frequency complies with a widely adopted international standard for animal ID, and approved by many governments.   

Each microchip has a unique code number, just like a barcode, and ‘locked’ inside the circuitry. It is usually supplied with barcode labels (see picture) to assist mapping and record keeping, see below. Being glass encapsulated it is embedded into a solid PVC rod for easy handling and improved strength, for resistance to any impact by spade or site machinery.
 Microchip Scanner- There are many types reading a variety of frequencies, but this one was chosen for ease of use, being one button operation and a standard 9 volt battery.
 By pressing the scan button on the battery powered reader a low strength magnetic field is created around its antenna. This field is registered by the transponder or microchip which in turn transmits its unique identity code back to the reader and displayed on the LCD screen all within a few milliseconds, together with an audible ping. The ‘read’ distance is governed by both the power output of the reader and antenna of the chip. Unlike barcode technology line of sight is not needed as any material except metallic barriers can be placed between chip and reader.  

green burial natural cemetery tracking
Clayton Wood

PM: Can the transponder be read by visitors without proprietary software on their mobile phone or pda?

SL: As RFID or microchip readers are being hard wired into some mobile phones already, I foresee families being able to look up the deceased details online provided the read range is long enough and the correct frequency is built in. However, it might be more practical if the burial ground owner supplies the service through a joint grave visit to start with or perhaps lends the equipment to the visitor even at a small charge until growth of natural burials and consequent visits and scanning frequency justifies more personal purchases. With a modern pole reader, a bit like a baseball bat, you don’t even need to bend down to the grass, and it would be quite exciting to imagine visitors wandering around a natural site picking up details of the deceased wherever they go!     

PM: Is there any add-on functionality to these transponders?  For example, could they point a visitor to a website or another source of richer information in the way that a QR code is being used in cemetery monuments? 

SL: As mentioned above, the devices are passive read only, and although some RFID chips can have data stored on them for later viewing, our feeling is that ease of use in a bereavement context is very important. Anyway the unique number can always be linked with a lot more information stored on PC, PDA, and the web, so access to data is maintained and probably cheaper. You need training to operate ‘read write’ chips.  

PM: What kind of feedback have you had from the natural cemeteries?  Is the insertion of a metal device into the ground seen by any as conflicting with the spirit of the cemetery?

SL: We have supplied the Epitrace system to over 60 sites in UK and Australia now and none have been concerned about the implantation as it doesn’t affect the visual aspect of the scenery which for many is very important. All recognize that anything ‘non-biodegradeable’ conflicts with the natural cycle of life and death and decay, however there wouldn’t be much point in having a peg that degraded or dropped out of range. I should add that only a tiny fraction of the chip itself is metal and it cannot be scanned through a metal barrier such as a bronze flat marker. It can be scanned through any other material. Many clients only permit a degradable natural stone or wooden flat marker near the grave and it is a simple matter to place the peg in the earth under the marker. Any disturbance or vandalism can help to replace a marker or a new one exactly where it was before over Uncle Fred, or his cremated remains, and family anxiety is reduced. You can imagine that these chips in different formats are also used to confirm ownership or leases of rose bushes and memorial trees, and for security purposes located in park furniture and other property to deter theft and prove ownership. We have even been approached by government agencies to investigate tagging body bags to assist identification and exhumation from mass trench burials if such a disposal system had to be used in the event of a pandemic like bird flu.   

green burial natural cemetery microchip
Herongate Wood

PM: What does the public have to gain from the introduction and adoption of this kind of tool?  Will we be able to make fuller use of the cemeteries we have?  Will we rest easier knowing where our loved ones are resting?

SL: The system was introduced to ensure that operators’ reputations were not harmed by any mis-identification of graves. There is already much debate over how visitors perceive the natural burial ground, -as a whole landscape for communing with nature or one’s faith or just a small part of it for visiting a loved one. It’s all these of course and as long as owners permit graveside visits and as long as families feel a need to associate with a marked or unmarked spot then the grave peg can lie unseen until it’s needed and reassure families that they are as close to Uncle Fred as they can get.

PM: What do you see in the future for cemeteries?  Will they adapt to the changing needs of society?

SL: It seems to me that we should encourage not just the bereaved, heritage researchers and genealogists into our traditional cemeteries but also the young and their teachers to look at headstones and increase their knowledge of local history, and become more comfortable with death than their forebears. Also being more tech- savvy they will use modern tools to counter the effects of decaying monumental inscriptions with databases and mobile accessibility. Cemetery owners I believe will recognize the value of actively marketing a wider range of services, long overdue in the public sector. For many the choice over final disposal will always be cremation or traditional burial with all the associated energy costs and harm to the planet. Ashes shot into space, lowered to reefs on the sea bed, and converted to diamonds, paintings, paper weights and jewelry have in the last decade provided surprising alternatives to the cliff top scattering. With over 200 natural burial grounds the UK is leading the ‘green burial’ movement. This third way (and there are more choices coming out of research labs) is in response to the next of kin wanting more time on the day, more choice over the ceremony and celebrant, and beautiful landscape compared with crowded urban cemeteries as well as a visible sign of their green credentials. The willingness to discuss and plan for death is getting easier and from that I see last resting places becoming destinations for enjoyment not just ceremony and duty. Are you really being disrespectful to the dead as you raise a glass from the picnic hamper?

Some years ago Penny, a natural burial owner and I were being interviewed by the BBC, and in response to a question about the graveside formalities she said ‘I don’t mind if they dance naked round the grave and fire champagne corks into it, -as long as they don’t disturb the horses’! 

PM: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and work, Stephen.

For more information about ASSETtrac:

ASSETtrac Ltd The White House, 
Oakendene Industrial Estate, Bolney Road, Cowfold 
West Sussex United Kingdom RH13 8AZ 
Tel +44 (0)1403 860063 
or visit the website

For more posts on natural and sustainable options, click here


Thomas Friese said...

Thanks for this, Patrick. Finally some illumination about electronic marking. Evidently my fears about technology becoming incompatible are unfounded, as least in the first century.

But I'm still left with the feeling that this will always be an accessory to the real thing, which remains a tangible lasting marker. With electronic saving of data, we ultimately need not even visit the cemetery - that can be done from home. And that may satisfy some.

But those who want to visit a grave site also want to see a grave. Knowing 100% that you are as close to Uncle John as is possible is not the same as seeing his name on a stone.

And in 200 years, for those who care about the cultural legacy of cemeteries, it is the stone that makes the contribution, not any chip, even a still functional one.

Stephen said...

Thomas, quite agree with all your comments. I would only add that the chip is really for the benefit of the burial ground owner not the family, as it is a last resort confirmation to ensure the owner buries family members next to each other or to assist an exhumation. Get it wrong and at the very least there is family distress. As you say there are far better material choices over memorialisation than a microchip, and here in the UK you have to choose your site very carefully as some owners allow more or less anything on the grave, others nothing at all!

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.