February 7, 2010 — When my sister-in-law, the nature writer and environmentalist Susan Cerulean, first proposed a natural burial (also called a green, or conservation burial) for her father, I have to admit there was some serious eye-rolling on my part. And after I heard the scouting report on the first green cemetery she considered, I was even more sceptical. To an outsider the setting seemed undignified, and the people running it appeared more interested in the profit motive than in saving the planet. Fortunately she was able to find another cemetery nearby, a place of great peace and beauty that met all of her objectives for a natural burial.
After experiencing the serene and just about perfect natural burial last week of my father-in-law, Bob, I became a convert. My conclusion is that this type of burial provides a soothing and beautiful end of life experience – particularly appropriate for any nature lover. This article will tell you about the concept and how it works.
What is a green, or natural burial
There is a small but growing number of natural cemeteries in the U.S. The idea is to have a beautiful final resting place where you can biodegrade naturally, preserve natural habitat, and protect the environment for future generations. In a natural cemetery embalmed bodies are prohibited, because embalming fluids typically include formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen that endangers funeral workers and slows down decomposition. Metal caskets and other objects that are not biodegradable are also prohibited in natural burials. In most cases cremated remains are accepted (although there is some evidence that that process generates pollution). There are no grave stones, although a metal marker at ground level is often provided. A young sapling tree is planted at the head of every grave. Relatives have a choice of native trees with which to remember their loved one, in our case we chose a native sand oak, which will over the course of its life grow to 60 feet. In the case of Bob’s resting place, a beautiful and huge piece of driftwood also marked the site. Additionally, all graves are precisely located by GPS.
Bob passed away 10 days ago after years of serious health issues. He was buried last week at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery just east of Gainesville, Florida. The cemetery is a 78 acre conservation burial ground following the green burial certification standards of the Green Burial Council. The site includes wild grass meadows and stands of classic North Florida oaks, and is maintained as conservation land. Proceeds from burials at PCCC, which currently cost $2000, are used to purchase and conserve land for future generations.
Why this ceremony was so appealing
Foremost in my mind was the setting at Prairie Creek – this natural preserve with its grasses and live oaks is incredibly beautiful. Upon arrival we were greeted by the friendly staff at a handsome welcome center. Families have the option to choose a family ceremony or a burial conducted by a funeral home.
We chose a family burial, one conducted by family and friends. The hole was previously prepared by volunteers in a setting under a towering live oak. Using ropes, The family lowered the pine casket into Bob’s final resting place. Family and friends shared reminiscences and a granddaughter read the 23rd Psalm. Nephew Jim, member of a Michigan American Legion unit who frequently plays his trumpet at military burials, played a moving tune. Using shovels provided, family members re-filled the grave and decorated it with flower petals and pine straw. The sapling was planted and Jim played the always haunting “Taps”. Doug, a retired Marine Colonel, saluted his father the WWII combat veteran, and the ceremony was concluded. The family then shared a picnic under a neighboring tree.
The entire effect was very soothing. Instead of having the formal and stiff aura that can happen when funeral home professionals are in charge, our informal ceremony matched Bob’s family-oriented personality. Not every family includes a musician who can play taps, but music can always be provided in some other way. The decoration of the grave, the planting of the tree, and even the replacement of the dirt back into the grave, which took about 20 minutes, was therapeutic to the grieving process.
If you decide to do this
Some planning is necessary if you opt for a green burial for yourself or a loved one. More information can be had at GreenBurials.org. Two important steps: First, identify a Conservation Cemetery in advance to get more educated about the process and any requirements you have to meet. Second, contact a funeral home in advance to find one that will help you in this process. They will manage important details such as refrigeration of the remains until the interment (or cremation if that is chosen). They will handle the death certificate and provide transportation of the remains to the cemetery (or supply the permit if you choose to handle this yourself).
For further reference:
Wikipedia on Natural Burials
“A Will for the Woods“, sample clip from a documentary in production
Find a Natural Burial Site
Comments? Burials and death are not pleasant topics to think about. But the best thinking we have heard on the subject is that they are inevitable. So please share your thoughts about your plans for leaving this world gracefully with others on this site.