A green way of dying

On a trip to rural India in 2002, I came across something quite beautiful and sacred: a forest cemetery.

There were no granite headstones or mausoleums. Instead, I strolled through a lovely glade of young saplings. In the decades since the burial ground was founded, mourning families had planted a tree commemorating each loved one who had passed. The day I walked there the young trees were alive with songbirds. The cemetery was laced with trails and dotted with benches – a peaceful haven for both the living and the dead.

I was struck by the common-sense simplicity of this sacred grove and thought, what a good idea! It’s now an idea slowly taking root in America. As of 2013, there were 35 natural cemeteries in 23 states certified by the nonprofit Green Burial Council.

What’s so wonderful about natural cemeteries is that no two look the same – unlike their industrial age counterparts with sterile lawns and row upon row of headstones. Each natural cemetery blends with its unique native setting.

South Carolina’s Ramsey Creek Preserve – the first modern U.S. green cemetery, founded in 1998 – boasts 220 plant species and the comforting sounds of a bubbling brook. Texas’ Eloise Woods Natural Burial Park features walking trails winding among native cedars and holly. Washington’s White Eagle Memorial Preserve is set within 1,100 acres of permanently protected oak and ponderosa pine. New York’s Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve draws on the expertise of naturalists to attract meadowlarks, bobolinks and other birds to its memorial meadows and groves.

A green burial in a natural cemetery is far less expensive than a conventional burial. It requires no embalming fluid with its toxic formaldehyde. Instead, the body is preserved until internment with refrigeration or dry ice.

A natural burial replaces the costly cement or metal burial vault with a hole in the ground. Caskets aren’t steel with brass handles, or made from rare endangered woods like teak. Instead the body is wrapped in a simple shroud, or laid to rest in a coffin or wicker casket made from locally harvested wood. The grave is dug by hand, not backhoe. The marker may be native stone, wood or a living tree or flowering shrub.

Green funerals – held in the harmony of nature – also tend not to be somber affairs but celebrations of the lives of those who passed. Mourners sing or drum at the forest or prairie graveside. Family members take turns reading letters or reciting poems as relatives and friends share the task of closing the grave with shovels, gently restoring topsoil and leaf litter. Later graveside visits include walks through woods and meadows and the comfort of knowing a loved one has been reunited with living nature.

The very slow growth of natural cemeteries – in an age when we urgently need to conserve every resource – speaks to the human and American condition. Though most of us agree that the earth and our human future is in jeopardy, we’re slow to change.

It’s hard to surrender entrenched habits – to eat organic, or trade in a big SUV for a fuel-efficient hybrid – and maybe even harder to change long-standing rituals like the way we bury and remember our dead.

Adding to that resistance are the industries and workforces that support human habits. The U.S. death care industry with its crematoriums and cemeteries handles 1.8 million funerals annually and is a $15 billion business largely dominated by 10 corporation that surprisingly include Walmart and Amazon.com, which both sell caskets online.

Still, a shift to green burials and natural cemeteries would save a great deal of resources: 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete vaults, 90,000 tons of metal caskets and 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid annually, plus vast sums of energy needed to cremate bodies, and tons of fertilizer and pesticide used to keep manicured cemetery lawns.

The question is, where do you want to find your final resting place: in a windswept granite orchard, or beneath an oak tree amid wildflowers pollinated by bumblebees? In the end, your choice could make a difference for your children and generations to come.

To locate a natural cemetery, go to www.greenburialcouncil.org.

Blue Ridge Press editor Glenn Scherer lives in Hardwick, Vt.