Dying to Be Green
Following the old dust-to-dust credo, a growing number of people are choosing to be laid to rest in biodegradable caskets and graveyards filled with wildflowers, not granite.
One fine spring morning, Phillip Sheridan and his two siblings walked a path through a nature preserve in upland South Carolina. Dappled sunlight showed through the tree canopy; the woods were lively with wildflowers and birdsong. An electric cart followed behind the group, pulling a small trailer carrying a plain pine box containing the remains of their mother, who had died suddenly the previous weekend in California.
At her grave, the siblings and a few friends lifted the simple casket and carried it to a neatly spaded rectangular hole in the earth with the region’s iron-red soil mounded alongside.
“We opened the casket, and my mother had been wrapped in a white shroud,” says Sheridan. “Her body had not been embalmed, her bottom dentures were missing, she had no makeup on at all—and she looked stunning. I don’t know how to explain it. She had been dead five days, preserved only by refrigeration and dry ice, and still she looked gorgeous—better than anyone embalmed I had ever seen.”
After reading letters they had each written, the siblings lowered the casket into the hole, and then they and their friends took turns shoveling dirt onto it. When they finished, they carefully restored the topsoil and leaf litter set aside in the digging. “We walked down to the creek and washed the crimson soil from our hands and faces,” says Sheridan.
“For the rest of my life I will remember that experience,” he continues. “I saw my mother looking beautiful and natural in death, and that allowed me to let her go. I know that the roots and the leaves and the bugs will totally decompose her, and that’s the way it should be.”
That’s not the way it is for the majority of the 2.4 million people who die in the United States each year, points out Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. We generally do not return to nature to gently decompose and become part of the earth.
Instead we go into the ground pumped full of formaldehyde-based embalming fluids, which cause elevated rates of cancer in workers who handle them every day and which don’t actually halt our tissues’ decay. (Our blood, other bodily fluids, and waste are pumped out and simply washed down the drain.) Our remains are often sealed inside “decay-proof” metal caskets, and entombed in concrete vaults to prevent the subsidence that occurs when the casket inevitably collapses. The grave is dug by backhoe, not human hands.
A barrage of pesticides and herbicides, along with fossil-fuel-guzzling, pollution-emitting machines, keep our final resting places so tidy—and sterile—that some cemeteries even remove offerings of fresh flowers.
Choosing cremation, the choice of one-third of the Americans who die each year, may save space in graveyards, but it isn’t particularly green either. As Harris explains in Grave Matters, cremation releases carbon dioxide—our final contribution to global climate change: about 350 pounds per cremation, according to an Australian study—soot particles, sulfur dioxide, and trace metals, including mercury from dental fillings. (Other potentially harmful items, such as pacemakers and their batteries and some prostheses, must be removed before cremation.) Then there are the fossil fuels consumed in heating the ovens to 1,400 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for the two and a half hours required to cremate a body and its casket, adds environmental journalist Mary Woodsen, a board member of New York’s Greensprings Natural Cemetery. “You could take 83 round-trips to the moon on the power used annually for U.S. cremations.”
“The industry as it has been is simply not sustainable,” says Cynthia Beal, founder of The Natural Burial Company. “The funeral home and cemetery industry is in the business of helping people; they have been doing it in a way that needs rethinking.”
Modern death-care traditions date to the Civil War era, when embalming was developed to preserve soldiers’ bodies so they could be shipped home. (Early embalmers used arsenic, which is still detectable in soils of old graveyards.) Around that time, local casket makers began “undertaking” to handle arrangements for the dead, including services and gravesite preparation, which had been done by families.
Beal and a growing number of others are showing the funeral industry how to reclaim its green roots: finding alternatives to toxic embalming fluids or forgoing embalming altogether; using biodegradable caskets or shrouds; abandoning concrete vaults; and encouraging family participation. In short, reclaiming the ethic of “dust to dust,” where bodies simply decay in place, nourishing the soil in their final rest.
In 2004, when Beal opened her business, few people knew what “green burial” meant. Now, she notes, typing that phrase into an Internet search engine results in thousands of hits, from makers of biodegradable caskets to home funeral planners. And cemeteries offering green burial can be found in many parts of the country, including Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and California. Many other existing cemeteries are adding natural burial sections. Burial at sea is another green option, says author Harris, either for whole remains—prepared without toxic chemicals and then weighed down—that become food for sea life or for cremation ashes. Ashes can also be incorporated into concrete “reef balls,” structures lowered into the ocean to create new habitat for marine life.
A green burial is good not just for the planet and your conscience, it will probably also save you money. The average cost of a traditional funeral runs $7,300, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Cemetery costs—the price of the plot, opening and closing the grave, and other services—can easily double that figure. A green burial usually costs considerably less, says Harris, noting that unlike traditional burials, there is no definition for what a green burial encompasses. “You can spend as little as a couple of hundred bucks for a burial on your own property to something more comprehensive, like a burial at a conservation cemetery, where the whole package, including green funeral home services, eco-coffin, burial, and plot, might average around $4,000.”
In burial, as in the rest of life, you have to watch out for greenwashing. “Just because you say you are doing green burial, it doesn’t mean you are,” cautions Joe Sehee, founder and executive director of the Green Burial Council, which has developed industry standards somewhat like the “certified organic” label. Although only two dozen or so of the nation’s 22,500 cemeteries have achieved certification so far, more are in the works.
Green cemeteries include conventional burying grounds that have set aside areas for natural burial, cemeteries that allow only natural burial (some of these accept only cremation ashes), and conservation burial grounds, full-fledged nature preserves like South Carolina’s Ramsey Creek, where Phillip Sheridan and his siblings buried their mother.
Conservation burial, says Sehee, a conservationist who is also a former Jesuit lay minister, stems from the idea of cemeteries as protected, sacred space. Instead of burying people in a manicured landscape like a modern cemetery, the aim is to restore the land to its natural state. Plot sales often fund land acquisition, ecological restoration, and ongoing stewardship. The focus is making death into a positive contribution to preserving healthy landscapes. The plots are laid out in a way that human remains will enrich the natural community. Graves are hand dug or scooped out with minimal impact. Plants and soil layers are carefully set aside to be replaced after burial. Graves are marked with only native stones or plantings.
The concept was first developed by Billy Campbell, a family physician, and his wife, Kimberley, at South Carolina’s Ramsey Creek Preserve. Billy, an avid kayaker who recalls having to decide in college whether to be an ecologist or a physician, first connected burial and conservation in medical school when he read about the tremendous biological diversity of New Guinea’s “spirit forests,” which, it is said, are protected from logging and hunting by the spirits of the dead buried nearby.
Six years later, when his father died suddenly at 54, Campbell says, he began considering seriously how burial might be linked with conservation. “With what we spent on the funeral and burial,” he remembers thinking, “we could have bought land and made it a permanent memorial.” An article about pioneer cemeteries in the Midwest serving as remnant prairies made the connection: Burial grounds could preserve habitat.
“For most of us the outdoors are for fun, or a place to get resources,” he says. “For me, giving people a chance to have a deeper relationship with the land is what it’s all about.”
The Campbells bought a rundown, 36-acre farm with wooded hillsides and a creek slipping over rocky shoals near Westminster, the small town where they live in upland South Carolina. They inventoried the biological resources, developed an ecological management plan, found room for 1,500 burial sites (conventional cemeteries pack in 800 to 1,000 plots per acre), and began to sell their vision.
It was slow going at first. “It definitely is not the sort of thing where you open your doors and people flood in,” says Woodsen of Greensprings Natural Cemetery. During the decade it took Ramsey Creek to become profitable, Billy, as Westminster’s only doctor, both tended to a full load of patients and dug graves by hand. (“It’s great exercise,” he quips. “We’re going to make a workout video.”) He also consulted with other interested groups.
One client, the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit, outside Atlanta, had just opened its 70-acre preservation burial ground when a tornado ripped through the group’s remaining patch of unlogged hardwood forest, toppling mature trees like jackstraws. So the Campbells located a horse-logging business to clear the trees, which the monks will fashion into handmade, truly local caskets. The income from the burial ground and caskets will help the Trappists with conservation and ecological restoration of the remainder of their 2,000 acres, which are part of the federally designated Mount Arabia Heritage Area.
State land management agencies are beginning to eye the concept as well, says Sehee, in an effort to generate funds for land acquisition and upkeep. In Texas, for instance, the Department of Parks and Wildlife is planning to designate “sacred spaces” on state lands as permanent conservation burial grounds for cremated remains.
When Phillip Sheridan’s mother died, he didn’t know anything about conservation burial, but he was touched by a natural burial on the HBO show Six Feet Under. “They had that episode where Nate talks about wanting to be buried under a tree in the woods,” says Sheridan. “That seemed like the sort of thing she would have liked to do—return to nature.”
Sheridan searched online for green cemeteries, and as soon as he spoke with Kimberley Campbell at Ramsey Creek, he knew he had found the place, no matter that his mother’s uncremated remains were in California and neither he nor his family had ever set foot in South Carolina. “I could tell that Kimberley got it—what they were doing was from the heart, not to sound corny,” he says.
The funeral home director who works with Ramsey Creek handled everything, including the tangle of two states’ regulations. He drove the two and a half hours to Atlanta to meet the middle-of-the-night flight carrying Sheridan’s mother’s remains, then washed her body and prepared it for burial the next morning. “They made it simple for us, and made it beautiful,” Sheridan says. “For the rest of my life, I can sleep well at night knowing my mother’s remains are there.”
That’s the beauty of natural burial, say its advocates: It helps the living know their loved ones are at peace in the natural cycle of life. “As a legacy goes,” says Mark Harris, “it’s hard to imagine a better one than my children sitting in a forest that might have been threatened by development, and knowing that I had a hand—and [he laughs] a foot and a leg—in preserving that for them.”
Field ecologist and frequent Audubon contributor Susan J. Tweit has written a dozen books, including a memoir, Walking Nature Home.
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Eco-friendly burial may not be for everyone, but if you—or a loved one—want to take your environmental values to the grave, there are a number of things to do before the Grim Reaper calls. As with all funeral preparations, early planning and communication with loved ones and caregivers can make what is without question one of the most difficult things to experience in life a little easier for those who survive a death.
Know your rights
• Embalming is rarely required, and in most cases a family can care for the body and make its own funeral and burial arrangements.
• Check with your state government, or confer with a home funeral consultant or a certified green funeral director.
• Before buying a plot, learn about the busi- ness you’re investing in. • Make your wishes known.
• Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, by Mark Harris. His blog, also called Grave Matters, includes updates on new trends in natural burial.
• Green Burial Council, Listings of certified green cemeteries, funeral homes, and other death- care providers, plus explanations of the different types of green burial.
• The Natural Burial Company. Although this is a commercial site, it offers many useful links and a lot of inter- esting content from founder Cynthia Beal.
• Ramsey Creek Preserve. The website for the original conservation burial ground in the United States is a great place to start learning about the concept.
• Greensprings Natural Cemetery. Another informative site, from an established green cemetery in New York.
• Eternal Reefs. A very informative website from the pioneers of the reef ball idea.
• To see a list of 12 green-certified U.S. cemeteries, click here.
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